Why Are We So Uncomfortable Talking About Money?

Women are more likely to fess up about their weight or their sex lives than about their salaries. And that’s a problem that’s costing all of us.

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In your Facebooking, Instagramming, TMI world, there’s little you don’t know about the people in your life. You know what your coworker ate for breakfast yesterday. You know what your high school lab partner wore to her anniversary dinner. Head out to a boozy evening with girlfriends and you’re likely to walk (er, stumble) away with a cache of mortifying confidences, ranging from heavy-period war stories to you-had-sex-where?! confessions.

So you might think that nothing is truly off-limits anymore. But there is still one conversational taboo that even the most intrepid lady wine-swillers tend to avoid: How much money do you make?

It’s not that we have a problem talking about any money matters. Women are plenty eager to brag about the steal we found on the Nordstrom’s sales rack, or the shrewd price negotiating we did for our 2011 CR-V. “We love talking about things we got at a discount, how far we went to get that 50 percent off,” notes Katie Donovan, salary coach at Equal Pay Negotiations, LLC, in Medford, Massachusetts. But when it comes to our paychecks, we clam up.

There are good reasons for our silence: We don’t want to seem self-aggrandizing (if we make a lot). Or embarrassed (if we barely make rent). Nor do we want to start viewing our friendships through a financial prism; once you learn that your friend makes $130K instead of the $60K you thought she made, you may never be able to tolerate her whining about the cost of her kid’s piano lessons again.

And in our workplaces, women and men alike are often warned to hush up. (Yes, despite the fact that, under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act, employers generally cannot prevent employees from sharing pay information.) According to research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 51 percent of women say that wage talk is discouraged or prohibited by their employer, and can be grounds for punishment or dismissal.

But there is an argument to be made for breaking this taboo. For one thing, keeping quiet is screwing women royally. “Think about it: Companies love that [women] find it difficult to talk about money,” says Donovan. “It helps them hire the best candidate at the lowest cost.” Yes, pay secrecy hurts men, too, but A) more men talk about their salaries, social faux pas be damned. “Men often give me their digits without me even asking,” says Michelle McKinnon, a financial adviser at Payne Capital Management in New York City). And B) men on the whole are still making more. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, women in 2012 earned almost 20 percent less than their male peers—meaning we need all the income help we can get.

This is not to say that you necessarily want to blurt out your salary and benefits figures at, say, your next book-club meeting. But experts say it’s worthwhile to share this information strategically. McKinnon suggests talking with colleagues in your peer group (others around your age, at your level), or with a mentor, if you have one. Donovan says to zero in on the men who do jobs similar to you; find out what they’re making to ensure your earnings are comparable.

Worried about starting the conversation? Donovan suggests you say something like, “I’m thinking my job should pay about $50,000 now. Does that sound about right?”

Then don’t stop there: Research the average wages for your specific position or field of interest at, or Check with the trade association in your field to see if they have reported averages for different positions. And hang out with millennials, who are apparently less likely to buy into the paycheck code of silence.

And then, be optimistic. Last April, President Obama struck a blow against pay secrecy by signing an executive order ordering federal contractors to allow workers to share salary information without retaliation. In January, legislation was introduced in Massachusetts that would keep employers from punishing workers who disclose their salaries, joining seven other states (Vermont, Michigan, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine and New Jersey) with similar laws on the books. There’s every reason to believe pay transparency will only increase, and with it (hopefully!), women’s bottom line.

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