The Taboo Number

[This is an automatic translation of the original post in Spanish and has not been edited yet.]

At the top of the list of things that I’m not willing to be spreading out there surely is my salary. But I think I am far from the only one. Taboo par excellence, this is a question that nobody in their five senses would casually bring into the conversation, say, during a lunch with friends on a Sunday afternoon, or as a way to break the ice with a stranger who we were just introduced to in an office event.

No, salary is a figure that we jealously guard from others, and even more, that others expect us to keep in the same way. Very few people have entrusted me with their number, and on all occasions they have been very close friends, during those days of therapy and reflection on career and work that we all need from time to time. Of course, no one is going to dare to ask point-blank for the exact number, and no one is going to throw that number away without at least trying to indicate it as vaguely as possible. We then resorted to imprecise language (“I was paid very well in the previous job”), to comparisons (“but now I am below the market”) and above all, to speak in percentages (“and I am looking for 15% more”). Thus, the theme unfolds slowly, awkwardly and dying, dancing around the figure without touching it, but giving enough clues to the other so that, with some margin of error, she can indirectly reconstruct it.

Knowing how much they are paying the next door arouses some fascination and curiosity, however I think that knowing where we are with respect to others transcends mere gossip. Specifically, I believe that this highly confidential nature helps to perpetuate this problem without an apparent solution, which is that of the disparity in wages between men and women. To see that this is a real problem, it is enough to open the pages of the newspapers any week to find that such a news service pays its male presenters much more than its female presenters, or that that bank reported a 60% gap in wages of their employees and their employees.

The roots of this problem are very complex and are anchored in the disposition of roles that as a society we prefer for men and women after the birth of their children. From them we hope they will return to the office after a couple of weeks of leave, and from them that they take a long period (or even give up their professional career completely) to take care of the upbringing.

However, the opacity with which we handle these figures helps to hide more subtle discrepancies between people who have the same level of experience and responsibility. If a woman has no way of knowing how much a male colleague doing basically the same is being paid, how can she possibly demand a correction of this injustice?

On the other hand, knowing the exact salary of all the other people who work in our organization may not be the solution either, just as in general the overabundance of information does not necessarily help us make the best decisions or be happier. This is a point that Dan Ariely, professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, makes a wonderful statement in a recent column in Wired Magazine. To illustrate his point, Ariely gives as an example the negative effect that continuous monitoring of weight can have when one is trying to lose weight. His solution (wonderful in my opinion), is a scale that does not give you your exact weight (“78.2kg”) but instead tells you if you are going in the right direction or not of your goals (“you are very good”).

I think that a service with the same characteristics as this scale would be ideal to help us navigate the dark waters of how our salary is compared to that of others. I imagine it as a decentralized service at the national level, which could collect a large amount of non-relational information and translate it into generic levels against which to compare ourselves. Entering more or less detailed information from our resume, and from what we are doing in our work, this platform would compare it with that of others and would tell you if your salary corresponds to your functions. Generalized and systematic gaps by gender, or by any other characteristic that is not relevant to our work, would be easier to identify and would help us to know where we are in the corporate seesaw.

The complexity of building a database like the one required by this system is enormous, and to be reliable it may need to be coordinated at the initiative of the government. However, the good news is that solutions are beginning to be seen that point in that direction. The UK government has recently required large companies to start publicizing the gap in what they pay men and women. Of course, the figures that have come to light so far are somewhat precooked and do not connect with the reality of the individual, but the exercise of putting all this information on the table already sheds some light on a topic rather characterized by its lack of clarity.