“If we want true equality in the workplace, we need to start with pay transparency.”

This week, I had a heated argument with my boss about pay transparency.

“Pay is a very private thing,” she insisted, “why is it anyone else’s business what someone earns?”

It would be terrible for staff morale, she told me, to suddenly discover that the person sitting next to you is on a higher salary. This could be for a myriad of reasons, she explained; maybe they’re a better negotiator, maybe they jumped ship, or maybe they are understood to be of more value to the business in a way that is difficult to quantify.

Listen: I argued with my boss about the need for pay transparency on this week’s episode of Mamamia Out Loud. It got very heated. Post continues below. 

But I’m not convinced.

Some industries have full pay transparency, including teaching, nursing and politics – and they’re not rioting about pay grades. But there are others, particularly industries where the wage gap between bottom and top is astronomical – that have a policy of secrecy.

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And historically, it’s served the big guys very well.

On Monday night it was announced that Lisa Wilkinson, who co-hosted the Today Show for more than 10 years, had left the Nine network due to their failure to meet her salary expectations.

This came after leaks over the weekend published by the Daily Telegraph that Wilkinson, a journalist with over 35 years experience, was being paid half of what her co-host, Karl Stefanovic, was taking home each year.

How was Wilkinson to demand pay parity if she did not first know how much the guy sitting next to her was being paid?

How can women, more generally, ask for the same as what he has – when we fundamentally do not know what he has?

And hasn’t our reluctance to talk transparently about money led to an environment in which women get paid 78 cents to every male dollar?

Image via Nine.

The argument goes that any discussion of pay is, well, somewhat vulgar. To ask what someone earns is impolite and intrusive. It's basic etiquette to leave the subject untouched - even though what we earn has an enormous influence on how we live our lives.

We can see it. We can feel it. But we mustn't ever talk about.

To be clear, not discussing money has nothing to do with politeness and everything to do with protecting the people who are earning the most money - and would rather other people not know about it.

CEO Dane Atkinson argues that salary secrecy is abusive, and throughout his career, "many times I paid two people with the very same qualifications entirely different salaries, simply because I negotiated better with one person than the other."

And what do we know? That men are, on average, more successful negotiators.

Women are far less likely to initiate negotiations, and even when they do, they are 25 per cent less likely to achieve a pay rise than men. Never mind how hard you work, how qualified you are, your level of experience or your quantifiable results.

The bloke sitting next to you could be on double your pay, simply because he's a bloody good negotiator and caught his boss on a good day.

Women, we know, ask for less. Why? Because they do not know how much they should be asking for. 

Atkinson argues that "salary transparency is the single best protection against gender bias, racial bias or orientation bias."

In January of this year in the US, the Department of Labor began investigating claims against Google that women are routinely paid less than men. According to the lawsuit, the company refused to provide data on their employees salaries.

And the argument goes, that if we all knew how much each other were paid, there would be a revolt. A revolution! It would be total mayhem and the business would collapse in on itself!

Listen: You can listen to the full episode of Mamamia Out Loud, below. (Post continues...)

But, if salaries are fair, and if they can be justified, then why would employees be outraged?

It's not like we can't handle the reality that some people in the workplace are paid more than others. We understand the notion of hierarchy and management. But if two people on the same level are being paid very differently, then a business needs to be able to explain that decision.

And if they can't, then, why not?

Going into a negotiation with your employer, when one party has far more information than the other is called 'information asymmetry'. And it is fundamentally unjust.

It's a game you just can't win.

In order to pursue true equality in the workplace, we need to start speaking openly and transparently about money.

Because women can't ask for parity when they do not know what parity looks like.

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