As a twenty-something woman with student loan debt, I think about money A LOT. So do my friends. It’s not uncommon for one of us to ask if we can hang out at someone’s house rather than at a happy hour to save money. It used to be that when we got together, sharing tips for saving and sympathizing about financial struggles were common topics of conversation, but talking about our pay was not. That is, until one day when we decided to set discomfort aside and put numbers on the table. It turned out that one of my friends was being paid significantly less than those of us with similar job responsibilities. That discussion gave her the information – and motivation – that she needed to successfully ask for and get a raise.
While this conversation between friends was a little uncomfortable, talking about pay can lead to much more than discomfort for many workers: it can result in discipline or even termination. More than 60% of private sector-employees report that discussing their pay is prohibited or discouraged by their employers.
When employees can’t talk to their coworkers about what they are making, they have no way of knowing if they are being paid less. The Paycheck Fairness Act will ensure that employees can discuss pay without fear of retaliation. Likewise, advocates are seeking an Executive Order from the President that would prohibit federal contractors from retaliating against their employees for discussing their wages. These measures are absolutely critical to allowing women to find out about and remedy pay discrimination, especially for Hispanic and African-American women, who are paid 55 and 64 cents, respectively, for every dollar paid to the typical non-Hispanic white man.
My friends are an ambitious group, and we often talk about subjects like the wage gap. We talk about how, once we are in positions where we can make these decisions, we will take into account the stereotypes that hurt women and create entirely new paradigms of salary negotiation and pay fairness to lift other women as we climb. Still, we recognize that it will take more than women attaining positions of power and “leaning in” to achieve a just workplace for all: we need changes in federal policy, including the Paycheck Fairness Act.
When we aren’t sitting around discussing employment policy at happy hour (what, that’s not normal twenty-something behavior?), my friends and I often dream about what we would do with some extra cash. Almost $11,000 per year – what women lose on average over the course of a year due to unequal pay — would be life-changing for many of us. Some of us would pay down our debt. Others would move out of our parents’ homes (yes, even with full-time jobs it’s hard to afford a room of one’s own in this town!) or pay for childcare. Glamorous? Maybe not. But we’d be feeling a lot more financially secure, and that’s glamour enough for us.