Let's talk about sex, oh no, I mean pay

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Is it ever ok to talk about pay?

For the first time ever the BBC has revealed just how much it pays its pool of celebrity talent. The move, designed to show licence fee payers just where their money is going, has uncovered that Chris Evans is its biggest earner, pulling in £2.2m a year, and that only a third of women are classed as top earners. Claudia Winkleman is incidentally the highest paid woman at the BBC, earning £499,000.

While some have praised the BBC for its transparency, director general Tony Hall has described it as “bad idea” because it could tempt other broadcasters with deeper pockets to poach stars.

But away from the hefty salary packets of TV personalities, is it ever a good idea for those in regular jobs to discuss pay?

It’s widely accepted among workers today, specifically in the UK, that talking about salaries and pay is inappropriate. While employers can’t legally stop you from discussing your salary, it’s probably one of the biggest taboos about working life. In fact, a study done by University College London back in 2015 revealed that Britons would much rather discuss their sex lives than their income.

“It’s not really something that I talk about with my friends,” says Jo, one of our digital marketing managers at Run2, “but I wouldn’t have a problem with it, it’s just not the done thing is it?”

And we only have to look to our own friendships to know how true that is. I can tell you intimate details of the majority of my friends’ lives. I know how many sexual partners they’ve had, their biggest regrets, their hopes, dreams and fears but I know practically none of my friends’ salaries.

It’s because we consistently place so much of our self-worth, as well as how we think other people see us, on how much we get paid. Ironically, you’re more likely to get judged for talking about your salary than revealing what your actual salary is.

“You’re seen as bragging if you earn a decent salary and talk about it,“ says Louis, one of our designers, “and it makes those who earn less feel bad about themselves.”

While some movements advocate salary transparency as a way of addressing pay inequality and discrimination, such as #talkpay, there’s no hiding from the fact that discussing how much you earn with your friends and colleagues can create its own set of problems

“Management like to keep staff salaries confidential, because they want to be able to reward people without making others upset or angry,” explains Cary Cooper, professor of Organisational Psychology at Lancaster University Management School.

“Just because two people do the same role doesn't mean they deserve the same salary.”

Finding out a co-worker who is in a similar role to you gets paid £4k more can cause both conflict and tension, but can also leave you feeling undervalued and doubting your skills set. But really, without having all the information, you don’t know the root of the pay disparity. And anyway, is it always necessary for those in the same level job to be paid exactly the same?

Christian McGinty, managing director of Run2 certainly doesn’t think so, especially in the agency world: “There are plenty of other factors other than the actual role that person is employed to do. Just because two people do the same role doesn't mean they deserve the same salary. Personally for me, it's about their overall attitude and applying what they’re skilled at for the greater good of the agency they work in.

"If someone is in the same role as someone else, I'd pay one a lot more than the other depending on what they bring to the agency, how they are day-to-day, and the person's overall attitude towards the drive of the business, regardless if they’re in the same role.”

Addressing the gender pay gap

There’s certainly the argument that salary transparency helps to highlight unfair pay disparity, such as the gender pay gap. This BBC salary revealed the (not so?) shocking fact that from the 96 on-air stars on the list, only 34 women earn more than £150,000. Additionally, only two of the top 10 earners are women.

Even more depressing is the lack of diversity within the top earners with only 10 people of colour making the list. Only two of those ten, news reader George Alagiah and DJ Trevor Nelson, earn over £250,000.

And without the Sony leak would we have ever found out that Jennifer Lawrence was paid significantly less than her male co-stars in American Hustle? Would she?

At the time, she put the blame on herself saying: “When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks, I didn’t get mad at Sony, I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early.”

But with so many women earning less than men, the current overall gap for full time workers in the UK is 13.9%, is it really an issue of women not being able to properly negotiate their salaries, or do we have to admit that there’s a bigger issue of sexism at play?

I think the two are completely intertwined. Generally, men and women approach their careers very differently. In Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, she cites a study that says: “Women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60 percent of the requirements.”

Reshma Saujani discusses in her TED talk that this is because girls are taught to be perfect from a young age, whereas boys are taught to be brave. She says:

“Most girls are taught to avoid failure and risk. To smile pretty, play it safe, get all 'A's. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then jump off head first.”

It seems the gender pay gap is the result of a multitude of issues. On the one hand, women are often more self-critical and reluctant to ask for more money, while men tend to have the confidence to take huge career-defining leaps. On the other hand, some might argue that the secrecy surrounding salaries prevents women from even knowing how much their male colleagues earn in the first place. Perhaps if we were more open about our salaries, there would be more equality, not only for men and women, but also for people from different ethnic minorities.

Jenni, one of our content writers, says: “I’m not sure it’s necessary for two people in the same role to be paid the same. As others have said, merit needs to also come into it and if one person is constantly striving for better results, why shouldn’t they earn more?

“However, I do think we need to ask ourselves why the BBC’s highest paid man is earning four times the salary of the highest paid woman. And this gender pay gap isn’t exclusive to the TV and media industry. We need to find ways to get more women in higher paid roles. Fixing the gender pay gap doesn’t just benefit women. It helps everyone.”

With talent such as Gary Lineker and Claudia Winkleman having agents to negotiate their salaries for them, it can be difficult to compare their wage gap with those workers outside of the entertainment industry, but it’s something that can’t be ignored. So much so that the Guardian have reported that “agents for a group of the BBC’s female stars are understood to be preparing to demand that the corporation’s bosses offer their clients a pay rise. Lawyers have also warned that the BBC faces sexual discrimination lawsuits.”

Outside of the entertainment industry, if issues arise from discussing your pay with friends and colleagues, how can we all, man or woman, ensure we’re getting the best salary possible?

Christian McGinty thinks companies should reward those who go above and beyond, but highlights that both men and women should feel comfortable asking for more: “If you want more money then work hard and ask for it. If you're good at something then don't just be good, be brilliant at it and push for what you know you can get.”

Beth Cunniffe is content executive at Run2.

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