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Pay secrecy

Pay secrecy as an institutional weapon may be weakening but we still have a lot further to go. 

By Aditi Natasha Kini

I recently asked my social media followers: Has any white male coworker divulged his salary to you? On Twitter—where the poll was open to men—64% of people said no white man had ever shared salary information, and only 15% voted “more than one.” On Facebook, where I polled only women and nonbinary people, this number dropped to 1%, with 81% voting “never.” This highly unscientific poll is nevertheless representative of an issue intertwined in conversations of allyship and organizing: Under present capitalistic structures, white men earn the most. If those white men presume to be in alignment with the baseline concept of equality and feminism, they need to share pay details with women and non-binary people in the office, and in their industry.

To the white men reading this—hopefully, there are some—did that last sentence make you cringe a little? Did it make you feel awkward and apprehensive? The mechanism of that cringe is two-fold: One, pay secrecy is to your advantage as a demographic and as an individual, so giving away that information would hasten the rate with which you’re losing your edge in society, and two, pay secrecy is fostered and upheld by institutions to protect employer overlords.

No capitalist wants his workers to know these details.

Pay secrecy as an institutional weapon may be weakening. Now we can share spreadsheets and encourage others to talk salaries. The shame associated with talking about money may very well be morphing; before, salaries were something to discuss in hushed tones in whisper networks, if at all. Google famously retaliated against Erica Baker, an employee who started an internal spreadsheet in interest of radical salary transparency three years ago. In 2014, President Obama announced two executive actions to close the pay gap by increasing workplace transparency: he directed the Department of Labor to collect more salary information from their contractors, and prohibited federal contractors from retaliating against employees who share compensation details. These executive actions were seemingly unnecessary: after all, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 allows “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

While around half of workers have been discouraged or prohibited from sharing information, the roots of this crackdown are obvious: vicious anti-union tactics are becoming increasingly common in the American workforce. Management’s anti-union tactics have pushed down the unionization rate from 22% in the ’80s to 12.4% now, according to a 2009 study that found that employers fired union workers in 34% of organizing campaigns, threatened to close plants in 57%, and threatened to cut wages and benefits in 47% of cases.


The argument for sharing wage information is predicated on a basic understanding of how capitalism works—it is not equally ferocious to all workers, so pay secrecy is an important tool to undercut groups of people. The racial and gender pay gap is well and alive in the American office—efforts for equal pay for equal work often quote the “77 cents on the dollar” statistic, a figure that only considers white women, thus erasing the racial pay gap.

Oftentimes, white men react to any efforts to rectify gender and racial imbalances disparagingly, negatively branding them as “affirmative action” or “diversity efforts.” When Oracle was sued for paying male employees far more than women who occupied the same level roles with similar experience, it reacted to the lawsuit with petulance, calling it “politically motivated.” Last year, the Department of Labor sued Google for “systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce”—meanwhile, a white man complained loudly about women in the workplace. The infamous Google engineer who wrote an anti-diversity screed last year used bad, biological essentialist science to explain the pay gap, and is, perhaps ironically, suing Google for unlawful termination. Never mind that statistics—a tool favored by “rational” men—also reflect that disparity: men in Silicon Valley are paid 61% more than women. Less than a third of Google’s employees are women—and only 2% are Black.

The tech industry’s issues with sexual harassment, gender discrimination and racial discrimination are often covered in mainstream media—after all, technology is “cutting edge,” it’s lucrative, it’s the “future,” it’s “sexy.” Similar to the attention to the Hollywood pay gap—do I really care who’s making what number of millions?—this focus leaves out pay disparity and wage theft that happens to socioeconomically disadvantaged people. Employers are stealing billions from the lowest paid workers of the United States. Fighting pay secrecy isn’t just a battle for engineers, or TV writers, or investment bankers—it’s for every industry, it’s for every demographic.

The rationalization of demonstrable inequality—for e.g., that women experience more “career interruptions” in the form of socialized attitudes towards caregiving—often ignores the overarching structures of capitalism that give power, en masse, to white men. White men at the top of any organization. White men with hiring power. White men who were hired when the rest of us were kept at home and out of schools. White men with the most purchasing power. White men with knowledge.

White men who identify as allies should know the path forward.




Author Bio: Aditi Natasha Kini is an essayist and multimedia artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Aditi merges the personal and the political in intimate examinations of life, memory, and wellbeing in creative nonfiction, plays, and film. You can read more at aditikini.com or follow @nansequiturs on Twitter.




Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash


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