Money / Speak Up / Speaking Out

Why women need to talk about how much money we make

. 8 min read . Written by Shagun Rastogi
Why women need to talk about how much money we make

Ever have that nagging feeling that you are underpaid? Unsure of how much money to ask for? You are not alone. We need to make our relationship with money conscious, and the only way to do it is to start talking about it in wider circles of trust.

It was a few years into one of my previous jobs when I learnt, through a random conversation with a colleague, that the take-home component of the salary of a junior employee was almost the same as mine. Even though I had always suspected that I might be somewhat underpaid, this confirmation still shook me. Needless to say, I felt quite dejected.

As someone who has always worked in media, which is a highly unorganised sector known for its low pay scales in the earlier stages of one’s career, I knew that I made less than many of my peers in the corporate world.

But what I didn’t realise was that starting at low pay scales would always keep me at a disadvantage.

Data tells us that for the same work, women earn 19% less than men. Unknowingly, I too, had become part of that statistic.

Truth be told, at no point in my career have I ever had the full and complete awareness of what my skills, experience and talents are worth. I have played, what is at best, a guessing game, putting together pieces of a jigsaw; a piece of information here, an internet review there, all held together in my head by the great middle class narrative of ‘whose son was hired for how huge a package by which multinational in which country’.

Neither the inflated, currency converted figures of this great Indian dream nor the random scraps of information collected over water-cooler conversations have been enough to provide me with a cohesive and market-conscious understanding of how much I should be paid. I know I am not alone.

Who does the secrecy serve?

This great secrecy around how much people earn, is upheld, obfuscated and sometimes intentionally loosened. One hears enough speculation about how much money a certain tech exec or a startup-turned-unicorn founder makes, but does this information help those at the near bottom or middle of the pyramid?

These aspirational figures reinforce the myth of meritocracy, which would have us believe that anyone who works hard and smart enough can have access to that kind of opportunity and wealth irrespective of privilege.

It doesn’t serve us to know how much money a person who is an exception to the rule can make. It serves us to know what the rule is.

The rule, however, is to keep shut.

The lesser the number of people we have open discussions around money with, the lesser our own chances of knowing what we should be asking for and getting.

And for those in the unorganised sectors, for those who freelance, or run small businesses based on services, any discussion around money is like stepping into the great unknown, which takes many years to understand and navigate.

So I ask you again, who does the confidentiality serve?

Does it serve you, who are unsure of what you are worth, what you can ask for, and what a fair market rate for someone of your calibre is? Or does it serve those who can get away with paying you a mere 10-15% over what you last made, irrespective of whether what you last made was up to industry benchmarks or not?

Of course, not everyone is out there to underpay you. Many good companies have ‘levels’ or ‘bands’ and the salary range for each ‘band’ is defined. It is likely that in all good faith, a respectable company will not and should not pay you less than the defined range.

However, your capacity to negotiate, even within that range, is affected when you are clueless as to what that range could be. Also, you might not have much control over which level or band you are being chosen for, since that information is not revealed during the hiring process.

Companies like to maintain this secrecy because transparency could ruffle many feathers, but those feathers should be ruffled, and the inequalities should be revealed, so that we can collectively settle down into an agreement of who gets paid how much and for what.

According to a study, 61% of women wanted employers to reveal the salaries of all employees, but only 38% of men thought it was necessary to share this information.

Our current conditioning ensures that we reveal our salaries to companies, while not revealing it to community and friends. Shouldn’t it be the opposite?

It would help, and greatly so, if people, especially those who are disadvantaged in any way, whether through gender, colour, race or disability, talked more freely and openly about how much they make. However, the only times when it is considered legitimate to freely and honestly disclose your money numbers is when you are being considered for a new project or opportunity.

Do you see the irony of it? The only situation in which you are expected to disclose your salary is where disclosing the number could put you at a further disadvantage.

A recent change in law in California prohibits companies from asking the salary history of candidates. This was done so that it could give a chance to historically disadvantaged populations, like women and minorities, to be offered salaries based on level, competence and experience rather than on what they earned before.

The idea behind that is that if you start with a pay gap, and you are constantly made offers based on that, you will never make up for that gap. Hence, the ban, which also allows you to ask for what you deserve.

But tell me, how can you ask for that when you don’t even know what you deserve?

Talking about money opens up conversations around self worth and power

This other bigger part of the problem, which is knowing what we are worth, is only solved by having frank and open discussions about money in wider circles of trust. What holds us back from doing so?

One, politeness.

Never ask a woman her age and a man his salary” was one of those old adages that administered unapologetic sexism in the guise of good manners, and was served liberally to good little Indian boys and girls along with their daily helpings of chai and toast.

Equating a woman’s worth to her age, and a man’s to his earnings, kept both under subtle pressure and control, while giving the outward appearance of face saving politeness. Implicit in the non-asking is the assumption that the disclosure around money and age can make one less desirable or respected. And so we avoid conversations around money like the plague.

Still, many Uncles, Aunties and Buas make no bones of asking “Beta, how much do you earn?” I am starting to believe that when that question comes from a space of open curiosity, it should be welcomed. Sadly, it often doesn’t. You are being sized up, and you can feel it.

Which is the second reason that we don’t have open conversations around money.

Because, whether we like it or not, and choose it or not, our conditioning has ensured that money gets equated to a sense of personal power and self worth.

This sets up an unhealthy dynamic around money, which throws it further into the dark – both in the external world, in the form of secret savings, stashed money, and ‘black’ money, and in the internal world, where we continue to push all of our issues around money, deservability, and self worth, into the dark recesses of our subconscious.

And then, it shows up as shame. You feel unable to ask for money. It shows up as guilt, where you are unbalanced in your giving and receiving. It shows up as want, or as jealousy, or resentment.

This reluctance to talk about money also leads to another problem — we fail to talk about investments and long-term financial planning. Around 55% of women in India are either not investing or do not know about investing.  

Talking about money will uncover these issues. But when done right,  it will also create a shared sense of trust and community. We will begin to understand what fair pay looks like, what leads to it, and what is given to it. Then we can define our boundaries around it, set our goals, choose our words, and ask for what we want, armed with knowledge and power.

The last reason why we don’t talk about money, especially as women, is because of the implicit cultural expectation that another person is going to take care of a woman’s money for her, whether it is her father, her husband, her brother or a broker. This often makes women, especially those who don’t work in finance or business, bypass their relationship with money and its management.

It can be relieving, but it is also disempowering, especially when it comes to making critical decisions. Owning our power requires that we own our relationship with the resources of this world as well, and money is one of them.

Reclaiming our relationship with money is reclaiming our power

A very close friend of mine asked me, for the first time in seven years of knowing me, “What was your last drawn salary?” I told her. She told me hers. I learnt that she earned only somewhat more than me, which was a surprise to me given that she was much more experienced. Once more, it turned out that the statistic exists for a reason.

However, she also managed it much better, and ran a whole household very well on it, which made me think about what a long way money can go if you cultivate a conscious relationship with it. The next day, I was going to send an email quoting my price on a project. I asked her for advice on how much I should quote. I was going to ask for 5 lakhs. “Ask for 8”, she said, because for her too, the conversation had opened up the question around how much we really should be getting paid, and what our time is worth.

I asked for more. And got it.

What stays under the surface controls us in much more subtle ways than what is seen and acknowledged.

The strings of power are held by those who are aware of the hidden workings of money, at home, and in the world.

When we bring money out in the open, we give ourselves the chance to make our relationship with it conscious, both individually and as a community. As we come into our own, re-forging our lost relationship with money is one of the ways of reclaiming our power. Let’s reclaim this power, together.

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