Let’s Talk About Pay

by Lauren Voswinkel on April 28th, 2015

On May 1st, International Workers’ Day, I will be publicly discussing my job title, my experience and my salary on #talkpay and I urge everyone to do so as well.

Pay inequality is an oft-discussed topic. There are measurable pay discrepancies between groups when looking at race and gender which are further exacerbated when someone is a member of multiple minorities. One need only look at the statistics that show black women making $0.64 to white men’s $1.00 and Latinas making $0.53. These discrepancies exist in a very profound and measurable way across all manner of fields and experiences.

Many write off the gender gap by pointing to time off during maternity leave and raising a child, or by pointing to reduced work hours women may ask for to accommodate the work-life balance their family requires. Opponents of these theories counter that this would not be the case if women were not expected to do a majority of domestic labor, as is still the norm… not to mention numerous sources that counter those assertions at their core. These analyses don’t even begin to touch on discrepancies due to race, which cannot be refuted.

Economists are quick to blame many of these discrepancies on a failure to negotiate for higher wages, however, many minorities feel a keen pressure not to ask for too much lest they be labeled as pushy or greedy. The fact that white men are typically lauded for their negotiation abilities while the same skills on display for minorities is labeled as a form of insubordination is telling. This is further compounded by the fact that many people are unaware what salaries their skills and experience levels will draw in their area.

Without a general understanding of the ranges of salaries their peers are earning, many people are left to simply throw a number on the table. Typically, when faced by the social stigmas laid upon them by society at large (one need only look at the disproportionate percentages of people suffering from imposter syndrome in minority groups), many people vastly undersell themselves, even when first coming to the table. When given an initial offer that vastly undercuts what they were willing to spend, companies jump on these offers without saying much, and will even bounce back with an offer that further undercuts the person’s worth, making them think they had asked too much in the first place.

Furthermore, even though we have numerous initiatives that seek to fix pipeline problems in tech, unconsciously discriminatory hiring practices make it exceedingly difficult for minorities to even breach the field — one of the biggest being the encouraged practice of finding new employees through existing employees’ social networks. Considering the majority of white people have a social network that is primarily, or in many cases exclusively, white, this tends to reinforce existing ratios or actively push them down further due to burnout caused by isolation of minority workers. Exacerbating that problem, conceptions of what a “real” developer looks like impact people’s interactions with potential candidates, particularly more junior ones, causing them to be evaluated at lower skill levels which leads to lower rate of offers and lower initial salary offers.

The lack of knowledge regarding reasonable salaries and predatory behaviors in tech companies can be directly attributed to the social taboo surrounding people talking openly about their salaries.

The Opposition Framed

Corporations are legally bound to provide their shareholders with as much return on investment as possible. If a shareholder board feels that a company is not upholding this obligation, they can be brought to court to prove their actions were in the best interests of the shareholders. Investors push more and more for reductions in the bottom line. With further attacks on public spending and infrastructure cuts, as well as shedding support for public welfare policies, Medicaid/Medicare, social security, and a continued slashing of taxes, the current tenor of society is clear: Fuck you, got mine. No wonder then, that there is reticence about discussing salaries. We are a country that believes if you are not successful, it is your fault for not working hard enough. Simultaneously, there is no mention or analysis of the numerous forces at work that actively push to suppress wages and general public welfare.

Many companies continue to directly advocate against collectivist practices by showing their new hires anti-union propaganda. Tech companies often put statutes in their employee handbooks stating that sharing salary information is a fireable offense, even though retribution for sharing salary information is illegal under the NLRA, as is threatening retribution. So even in our own industry, employers are often engaging in illegal behavior in order to discourage open discussion of salary information.

Pay inequality based on gender and race is allowed to thrive in the current environment. If things continue in this fashion, it will likely get worse. For inequality to truly be addressed, discussions of pay need to become commonplace. I have heard numerous stories of egregious pay inequality in tech. A woman told me how a new hire she managed was making tens of thousands of dollars more than her salary. I myself have had the direct experience of discovering that, while being significantly more qualified and experienced than many of my peers, I was making less than nearly everyone else on the team by a significant margin. These stories could not happen in an environment where open salary information existed. It would become impossible for an employer to pay someone significantly less than an employee in a similar position, regardless of race or gender. Discriminatory practices cannot withstand open scrutiny; unfortunately, the past 40 years have been spent creating an environment wherein open discussion is socially taboo.

Discussions of pay need to be happening, not only within individual companies to discourage pay inequality at that level, but across the discipline so incoming people, particularly minorities, have realistic expectations of what their skills can earn. When you look at new initiatives to address pipeline issues through retraining, someone coming from a sector where they make $28,000 per year will accept an offer of $55,000 per year eagerly, even though their skillset may typically earn them tens of thousands more than that. This offsets future earnings, as they will continue to sell themselves short, basing their initial offers off of their past incomes. Unless people have realistic expectations of what they can make based on open pay discussions, existing pay inequality will continue to be perpetuated in our field.

Another egregious example of pay inequality in tech takes a significantly less overt form. People in our industry pride ourselves on strong work ethics. People openly brag about the longest days and weeks they’ve worked as some perverse badge of honor. The vaunting of this behavior often leads people suffering from impostor syndrome (which, again, disproportionately affects minorities) to feel the amount of effort they put in is inadequate. This then spurs them to work consistently long work weeks, which, when working as a salaried worker whose contract states a 40-hour week, effectively causes those people’s work to be further devalued. Not only that, but the continued stress often causes enormous self-doubt (“Why can’t I keep up with this workload, I must be terrible at this”) and, in a startling number of cases, burnout from the field entirely.

Call to Action

The fact is, companies are doing everything they can to increase their bottom line, and as such, they are actively trying to pay you as little as possible, with the understanding that if they underpay you too much, they will lose talent. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Intel actively conspired to suppress wages in tech by coordinating pay scales and refusing to poach talent from each other. Companies have also been known to base their offers directly off of what your most recent salary was at the last company you worked for. When you are already receiving a suppressed wage, this perpetuates that initial underselling, leading to continued inequality.

Collective practices need to make a resurgence and we, as one of the, if not the, most connected fields are a prime candidate to make that happen. As increasing demands on developers lead to an increased rate of burnout, we need to work together to return to a more sustainable pace. 60-hour work weeks becoming the norm when contracts are paying us for 40 hours per week is wage theft. Emergencies and crunch time should not be happening every week. Our community already shows staggering levels of mental health issues, and these will continue to climb as VCs push harder and harder for increased returns.

We need to talk seriously about ending these practices. We can, individually, change the tone of how we talk about these extended hours. Instead of wearing that one 34.5 hour work day (yes that happened, and I got paid for 14 hours of it) as a badge of honor, I’ve instead decided to use it as a story of egregious mismanagement of the project I was working on. We need to reframe these occurrences, collectively, as an unsustainable and unacceptable practice. It is also possible to actively discuss unionization as a means to keep these practices in check. By providing a degree of oversight for companies, and a place for employees to openly and honestly air grievances against their employers, a union for tech workers could act as a force to reduce these problems in our field. This would also encourage more equal pay scales across the industry and facilitate many discussions about pay in a setting that has proven legal standing.

This is where we start to get controversial. If discussions about pay continue to remain taboo, then let me make a suggestion: Start lying about your past pay. According to case law surrounding the National Labor Relations Act, pay structures are considered to be company secrets. Furthermore, it is illegal for an employer to say anything about your pay to an outside source. The only thing they can legally verify are the dates you worked with the company. So lie. Talk with your friends about salaries to get an understanding of what you SHOULD be making, and lie about your past until you get to that point. We are the only people that have our interests in mind, and in our society, where white collar crime often leads to nothing more than a slap on the wrist, we should do everything we can to further our own business-related needs. So lie your ass off. If a potential employer asks for a past pay stub for verification purposes, blank out any salary information, leaving only the fact that yes, you did, in fact, work there.

This cannot be the end though. Lying to increase our own salaries only benefits the individual. We need to push harder to make open discussion of salary a commonplace occurrence. So, let this be the one thing you take away from this: On May 1st, International Workers’ Day, I will be publicly discussing my job title, my experience and my salary on #talkpay and I urge everyone to do so as well. This jolt of honesty should be a revelation to many within and outside of tech about the realities of pay discrimination and inequality. It would also provide an open body of information for people to analyze pay in tech to concretely illustrate the pay gap (or lack thereof, which is possible, though unlikely) within an industry.

This is not without risks, however. Case law has made pay scales a company secret. If we talk about them openly and flagrantly, there is a possibility of retribution against individuals. That said, if this catches on with enough people and generates enough response, it may be too much of a political and public relations risk for an employer to let someone go over openly discussing salary information. With a high profile also comes the possibility for high-profile court cases surrounding a dismissal on these grounds. In the current climate, a high-profile case of this manner will potentially have a positive outcome, regardless of the ruling. If an employer is found to be in the wrong for such a dismissal, it reinforces an employee’s ability to discuss pay openly without repercussions, which has the effect of diminishing pay discrimination. If the employer is found to have done no wrong, it provides a rallying point for workers’ rights nationwide that illustrates just how lopsided the employee-employer relationship is.

To truly begin to eradicate pay inequality, we need a radical discussion. So let’s talk about pay.