Pay transparency–or knowledge of salary and compensation across an organization or company or even publicly–is often cited as a solution to the gender pay gap. While we know that women, overall, are underpaid relative to their male counterparts, most women don’t know on an individual basis if they’re paid less than men in the same roles (or in lower-level positions) and if so, by how much.
Unless everyone starts talking about how much they make, we’ll never know. But this is no small task.
Not only is money still taboo, half the population is culturally deterred from talking about money because of their gender. In a 2019 survey, InHerSight found that 62% of women say they would be somewhat uncomfortable or very uncomfortable asking a male colleague to disclose his salary to her.
Cynthia Pong is a career and negotiation coach and former attorney. She helps women of color realize their career potential, and a large obstacle to that realization is the gender pay gap, which disproportionately affects most women of color. Pong believes in the power of pay transparency to close the gender pay gap.
Although pay transparency can be powerful, actually having the conversation isn’t easy. If companies are not publishing pay statistics, employees have to facilitate the conversation for themselves. But how do you ask someone how much money they make? Pong has advice for navigating this difficult conversation.
Understand that a salary figure doesn’t tell the whole story
There are all sorts of reasons–both justified and not–that different people who do the same work earn different salaries. Credentials like more experience, specific certifications or licenses, stronger performance, and more education are all non-nefarious reasons companies may use to pay one employee more than another even if they perform the same role.
Pay parity is about giving everyone the same opportunity to earn the same salary. Yet Pong points out, “You find out that [a coworker] completed two trainings, which is, ostensibly, part of the reason he’s being paid more for doing the same work as you. However, unless you were also given a fair and equal opportunity to complete those two trainings, I wouldn’t necessarily accept this as legitimate grounds for his being paid more.”
Start with your own research
Before you ask coworkers about their salary, begin by doing some research of your own.
If you have reason to believe a coworker is making more than you in the same role, check LinkedIn to get a sense of their education, credentials, experience, and accomplishments. Look for online bios and more information about them that may affect how much money they make.
You can also begin to probe for information from coworkers. Pong suggests saying something like, “It seems that Brian is really good at x or y.” Then let them respond and elaborate, as you remain silent. Most people love to talk and the silence will make them uncomfortable, and therefore more likely to talk.
Before you enter the money conversation, check your intention. “I’m not sure I can think of a situation when it’s inappropriate to talk about pay, so much as I’d say there’s an inappropriate way to talk about pay,” says Pong. If you’re going to approach a coworker to talk about how much money they make, having a rapport helps. Going in cold will feel invasive.
Set aside a good time
The opportunity to talk about pay doesn’t always present itself, so you may need to create time and space. You can ask a coworker if they have time to sit down and talk without divulging the reason right up front.
Pong recommends this approach because it gives both parties agency in the conversation: you make the request, they choose the time. “Choose a location together that makes sense and is safe for you both,” she says, “because it may or may not make sense for you to broach this topic in the workplace.”
When you sit down to talk to your coworker, thank them, and then explain why you’re asking the question. “I wanted to ask you about something that’s been worrying me for a while,” Pong suggests, “I suspect that I’m being paid less than other people in our position and I wanted to run it by you and ask your advice. They’re paying me $X. Is that what they’re paying you too?”
Or you can ask, “Is that less than what they’re paying you?” Pong recommends phrasing it this way rather than saying “Is that what you’re being paid?” or “Is that what you make?” because it sounds less like you’re putting them on the spot. “The emphasis is on what the organization is doing, which removes any blame from the person you’re talking to and serves to align you with the person you’re talking to,” she says.
What to say if they won’t share
Some colleagues will not want to talk about pay, but you might be surprised at how open your coworkers may be. In 2019, InHerSight found that 36% of women say that a male colleague has told them how much he makes.
If they don’t want to share their pay information, you might say, “I totally get it. No one likes to talk about money. I just want to make sure I’m not being taken advantage of.”
If you can’t talk to your colleagues about salary, try speaking to HR. You might say, “I was wondering if we could talk about the salaries for people in my position. Is everyone in this position being paid the same (as I am)?”
If HR refuses to give you a sense of what compensation is like across the company or if you have reason to believe they’re not being frank, ask them about their plans for addressing the gender pay gap or ask what you can do to be paid as well as those who make more than you do.
Don’t forget to work as a team
There is power in joining forces with your coworkers to better understand company and industry pay practices. This also gives you the opportunity to serve as an ally and advocate for coworkers who may not be in your position.
Start having these conversations with coworkers and ask them to do the same. Pong suggests broaching the subject with coworkers with whom you’re close first. “Simply ask them if they are being paid something around what you’re being paid,” she advises,” When you disclose information first, you’re being vulnerable and it will help them feel comfortable being vulnerable and telling you also.”
Not only does this normalize the discussion of compensation, but you may also even begin to work together to approach management about improving their pay practices.
Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a content strategist at InHerSight.