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Canada Amplify: 'Money’ is not a bad word, and we should all be talking about it

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“How much do you make?”

I asked this question the other night when I had drinks with a few friends in my industry. It wasn’t out of the blue – we had already been discussing jobs, the future and where we’d like to be some day.

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When the question left my mouth, I found myself wanting to breathe it back in. The room got uncomfortable. My friends fidgeted. But I had a reason for asking it – because I know that only when we talk openly about how much we make can we be sure we’re earning what we deserve. And I know that’s especially true for women.

I’m Shelby Blackley, the outgoing editor of Amplify. I’m moving on to new opportunities – for reasons other than money – so this will be my last issue. (Don’t worry, though, the newsletter is not going anywhere.) But ever since I made that career decision, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the contents of my bank account.

My income has always been important to me. Part of that is the joy that comes when my savings ticks upward, as I greedily look on like Simpsons tycoon Mr. Burns. But it mostly has to do with the way I think about fair pay: I want to make sure I’m making as much as my colleagues.

I’m not alone. This piece from The Atlantic in 2018 explained how two researchers from Harvard’s business school asked 750 employees of a large bank in Asia how much they’d be willing to pay to learn what some of their co-workers earn. The median response was only US$13, but some were prepared to shell out more than US$1,000.

It’s not just curiosity, though: Research suggests that keeping salaries secret reinforces pay discrimination. That could mean wage gaps between similarly skilled women, but as statistics show, it plays out more frequently as gender-based pay disparity. (If you need a reminder, women in Canada make 88 cents for every dollar men make.) That disparity is also affected by other factors such as race and disability. As Kristin Wong writes for The New York Times, it’s easy to see how biases might contribute to a wage gap, but it’s much harder to prove that discrimination on an individual level when the figures are kept private.

So why are we so afraid to ask how much others make? Maybe it’s because we’re not sure that knowledge will help us negotiate a higher salary. Unsurprisingly, it feels like the repercussions of asking may be greater for women than men. Two years ago, PayScale’s salary negotiation guide said research indicated that women are seen as too aggressive, too masculine or just plain unlikeable when they ask for more money.

Another reason we don’t like talking about money, as this amazing piece in the Smarter Living newsletter from the Times explains, is that we often entwine salary with our self-worth. That’s mostly because our careers are so ingrained in our identities.

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Part of the solution could come from employers themselves. As this Forbes piece suggests, pay transparency is good for companies, too. It motivates employees, encourages organizations to attract a diverse work force and can eliminate the need for women to negotiate for higher salaries in the hiring process.

Still, there can be discrepancies that seem unaccounted for – especially when discussing your salary with people outside your company. Perhaps your friend makes $20,000 more than you because she’s in a more competitive field or she has an extra master’s degree. And, sometimes, luck does play a part.

But you can also help your peers with a frank discussion: Can you encourage your best friend to advocate for herself next time she has to negotiate for a raise? Is there a way you can give her advice or reading material about the benefits of discussing her salary at her own workplace? Can you take a more junior colleague out for coffee and coach her on how to have these discussions when you’re not around?

That night, when I asked my friends how much they earn, I disclosed how much my salary was first. We then went around in a circle. We tried to create a judgment-free zone by reminding one another that our income does not define us and that the work we do is admirable. Someone then asked what our ideal salaries would be and what our career goals were. Was money a big factor in this? The single question turned into an hour-long candid discussion about something we all had many thoughts about, but never got to say aloud.

What else we’re reading:

Contrary to many Canadians, I don’t look forward to the summer. It’s too hot, too sticky and too busy – my favourite type of day is in late October, when there’s a cool breeze and colourful leaves surrounding me. But since I can’t magically make the summer go away, I’ve been thinking about how to handle the heat. This piece from Climate Fwd:, an environmental newsletter from The New York Times, looks at how to withstand the summer months in a sustainable way. While air conditioners may be the easiest method to cool your home, the newsletter explains that the best way to use them is at a relatively high temperature and in tandem with fans to increase cooling efficiency. My preferred method? An hour on, an hour off with a fan or windows open.

Inspired by something in this newsletter? If so, we hope you’ll amplify it by passing it on. And if there’s something we should know, or feedback you’d like to share, send us an e-mail at amplify@globeandmail.com.

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