It is one of the most awkward questions one can ask a colleague, “How much are you making?” In the few times I’ve broached the topic, I’ve usually come away disturbed to discover discrepancies in salary unexplained by experience, education, or seniority. When news broke today that New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was being replaced, it was surprising in that she has only been in the position for three years. It was more surprising when NPR and New Yorker reporters explained a big reason why: she had complained about unequal pay after she discovered she was being paid “considerably less” than the male editor, Bill Keller, that she had replaced.
It is infuriating to discover unequal pay, no matter what species you are, as demonstrated by researchers who gave differing rewards to capuchin monkeys:
A few weeks back, Ramit Sethi, a financial advisor who writes a popular blog called, “I Will Teach You To Be Rich,” struck a chord with a post claiming that people are more comfortable talking about their sex lives than their salaries. Perhaps the reaction above is one of the reasons: Just knowing that someone is making more than you can be stressful, even if you’re not in the same type of job.
“[By talking about what you're paid] you can know if you’re on track and you might discover you’re woefully underpaid or paid very well. You just don’t want to talk about it with people you know,” Sethi wrote. “I’m going to try an experiment: We’re going to ANONYMOUSLY share how much we make. And as you do, notice how it makes you feel.”
His posts usually get a few to a few dozen comments. This one got nearly 1,500 comments from people sharing their current income, ages, job titles, locations, and how much they would “feel comfortable” making. If you’re into financial voyeurism, check it out. Those with higher salaries chimed in early, with more modest income earners expressing chagrin as they revealed their relatively paltry salaries later. A 31-year-old programmer from Phoenix made $370,000 last year. “$170k” said a 36-year-old sales guy from a web publisher in San Francisco. Meanwhile a paralegal in Seattle took home just $36,000.
It’s much like what you’d find on Glassdoor but with more details about the lives and backgrounds of those attached to the salaries. Theoretically, it shouldn’t make people feel badly because it’s comparing Apple jobs to orange jobs, and it shouldn’t even be that helpful for them as it was comparing jobs with very different skill sets, but it still seemed to inspire feelings of jealousy and superiority, based simply on a raw feelings about societal equality of pay. So what was the point of the voyeurism?
“Part of it is just fascination,” said Sethi in an interview last month. “Money is the ultimate taboo, but talking about it is a good thing.”
The transparency around salaries was a good thing for some of Sethi’s readers, who reported being inspired to go to their bosses and (successfully) ask for raises. That, however, wasn’t the case for Abramson, reports Ken Auletta.
Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs. “She confronted the top brass,” one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was “pushy,” a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.
The issue that will surely be raised repeatedly in response to the New York Times leadership change-over is women vs. men when it comes to negotiating salaries in the first place. Even that is complicated: part of how people determine what they should be paid is asking around in their social circles. If those in your social circles are similarly underpaid — if Abramson, for example, asked other (underpaid) female executives at media companies what they were making rather than male ones — then it’s self-reinforcing. In that vein, I think projects like Sethi’s are worthy ones, in that they create more transparency about what people are making from a wider swath of society for comparison.
“There’s always going to be people making more and less than you. Salaries alone don’t tell you much without context,” says Sethi. Auletta points out that Keller had been at the Times for longer than Abramson, for example. “But you can’t change your life if your eyes aren’t open to how other people are living theirs.”
Abramson, who was so devoted to the Times that she has a tattoo of the paper’s T, had her eyes opened, but the change in her salary it inspires will need to come in her next job.