Salaries and hashtags: Tweeting your earnings to tackle pay inequality

Natali Vlatko
Pay day image via Shutterstock

In an effort to address the social taboo of talking openly about salaries, one member of the tech community has begun a movement that she hopes will reveal the lack of knowledge and predatory nature of tech companies when addressing pay.

Programmer Lauren Voswinkel first floated the idea of openly disclosing her salary, job title and experience under the #talkpay hashtag to coincide with International Workers’ Day on May 1st. The initiative was aimed at creating a dialogue about pay inequality, which Voswinkel describes as an “oft-discussed topic”.

Startup employees soon jumped on the idea, and eventually a plethora of articles and stats were added to the #talkpay Twitter feed. In her commentary piece, Voswinkel focuses on minorities within the greater sphere of the gender and race discussion: members of the trans community, as well as those of Latino or African-American descent are just some of the groups affected by pay inequality in tech.

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.

It’s fitting that the article was published on Model View Culture, a portal that aims to present and highlight the work and achievement of diverse communities in tech, and explore the use of technology for social justice. Since the article went live, a mixture of support and hesitation has met the movement, with many hindered by the legal and contractual consequences that revealing their salary can bring about.

SEE ALSO: What motivates developers? (Hint: probably not money)

It’s an interesting conundrum: the social taboo surrounding people talking openly about their salaries, together with contractual restraints only serves to impede the accumulation of knowledge about what skills and experience (and the people attached to them) are worth.

For Voswinkel, the solution is clear: “for inequality to truly be addressed, discussions of pay need to become commonplace”. She says that it would become impossible for an employer to pay someone significantly less than others in similar roles, 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”.

Looking at the statistics

While not strictly involved in the #talkpay discussion, Twitter Product Manager Paul Roland Lambert put together some data comparing the salaries of Product Managers and Software Engineers at Facebook and Google. His data was sourced from disclosure requirements around visa sponsorship, with the H1B being the standard work visa for tech workers in the United States.

After pulling three years’ worth of statistics and combining them into a single dataset for each company, Lambert was able to show how top engineers are still the ones to beat when it comes to a higher pay grade. Expected errors in data consolidation aside, Lambert concluded that the SE:PM ratio at both companies were very similar – 35 Engineers per 1 PM at Google; 40 Engineers per 1 PM at Facebook.

Lambert’s study shows how the salaries he was profiling for PMs and SEs of foreign origin (meaning not from the U.S.) must be set against a “prevailing wage” – what the federal government believes is the average salary for the role, seniority and location. “The sponsoring companies are not allowed to pay below this. They must pay at, or above, the prevailing wage. This sets a minimum bar on these salaries not present for domestic workers.”

SEE ALSO: New statistics reveal Microsoft is among least diverse companies in tech

While the word “foreigner” may inspire hope that the people making the big bucks in Lambert’s overview (up to $275,100 USD) are from different minority groups, it seems unlikely when comparing these results to recent global employee statistics of key tech companies. The 76% male, 61% white ratio is exactly the kind of statistic that the #talkpay exercise intends to address.

Taking the revealing step

The push to actually publish one’s salary, job title and experience has been said to overly simplify the issue of pay inequality, with many commenting on what the movement misses:

User @hossafy also notes that working hours, how qualified the employee is, how hard the job is and the negotiation skills of said employee aren’t taken into account in such a simplified statement. However, the issue of negotiation is also a contentious issue according to Voswinkel.

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.

Many women have piped up via the #talkpay hashtag to share their experiences with negotiating and the need for help from a male friend or counterpart in order to be more competitive:

These kinds of experiences highlight the obvious prejudice that’s expressed in salary discrepancies. As a way to combat this, Voswinkel has made the controversial suggestion of lying about your past pay. As it’s illegal in the U.S. for an employer to say anything about your pay to an outside source, Voswinkel suggests bending the truth until you get what you deserve. “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”.

SEE ALSO: The programming skills bringing in the big dollar bills

The issue of talking about salaries is biased in some ways due to the country you’re actually employed in; in Norway for example, all salaries are openly available as public data, taking transparency to a completely new level. Income transparency has often been cited as a way to reduce income inequality and make the labor market more efficient, with Norway again leading the pack in publishing the amount of tax its citizens pay.

Solutions like the above could be called radical by some, but that is exactly what the salary discussion in tech needs to be, says Voswinkel. “To truly begin to eradicate pay inequality, we need a radical discussion. So let’s talk about pay”.

Follow the #talkpay discussion on Twitter here.

Natali Vlatko
An Australian who calls Berlin home, via a two year love affair with Singapore. Natali was an Editorial Assistant for (S&S Media Group).

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