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Jennifer O’Connell: I’ll tell you my salary, if you tell me yours

We are more likely to tell a stranger we’ve had an STD than we are to reveal our income

The last taboo: it’s time for an end to the cultural secrecy around salaries

Previous readers of this column might not be entirely surprised to hear that I have a habit of over-sharing. Coyness has never been my strong suit.

I still blush about the time I found out that I was about to be offered a job I’d been interviewing for. “Keep this to yourself for now, but we’re going to offer you the role,” my soon-to-be boss, an enviably implacable blonde, said softly when we met at a social event.

“I think you’ll be happy with the package.” She mentioned a sum.

“Jesus Christ!” I yelled. “That’s an awful lot of money! Are you sure?”


“And that’s how not to drive a hard bargain,” her husband said, looking on as she tried to disentangle herself from my joyous embrace.

I’m not advocating that salary negotiations should involve inappropriate physical contact, blasphemy, or tears. But I think we could all benefit from being a bit less coy about money in general, and salary in particular.

These days, we’ll sit around sharing intimate details about things that might have horrified previous generations – online dating exploits, marital sex, chin hair, drinking gin out of a coffee cup while you bathe your children. Almost nothing is off limits. Almost, but not quite nothing.

Walk up to a crowd of people and ask: “Who’s had herpes?” and then try, “How much do you earn?”, and see which one clears the place faster. Actually, maybe don’t do that. But take it from me. In fact, take it from proper sociological research: there’s nothing we hate more than talking about salary. A survey of 15,000 people by University College London found we are seven times more likely to tell a stranger whether we’ve had an affair or an STD, than we are to reveal our income.

But who does all this cultural secrecy about salary benefit? Bad employers, and that’s about it.


Organisations will point to research from UC Berkeley and Princeton which shows that knowing how you rank compared to everyone else won’t make you any happier in your job, even if you discover that you’re earning more than Tiernan in marketing. I suspect most of us would rather they spared us the paternalistic concern, and let us make up our own minds whether we should be dancing the hula, or beating an irate path to our manager’s office door.

There's one group disproportionately disadvantaged by the secrecy surrounding salary. Yup, it's us again, ladies. When the salaries of the top employees at RTÉ were published recently, it wasn't Bryan Dobson who was revealed to be earning a whopping €60,000 less than Sharon Ní Bheolain.

I have one friend who has been married for 13 years and swears she has no idea what her husband makes

Last week, the BBC’s China editor, Carrie Gracie, quit her job after she discovered that two male international editors earned “at least 50 per cent more” than their female counterparts.

A LinkedIn survey a couple of years ago found that most people see transparency about pay as key to closing the gender pay gap. But nearly three in four went on to say they wouldn’t be comfortable telling anyone what they earn. Women, astonishingly, were even more reluctant to talk about pay than men, despite being the ones with most to gain from more transparency.

Women will share with perfect strangers the exact circumstances in which they lost their virginity, whether they accidentally defecated during childbirth, and who they have a secret crush on. But they’ll never tell even their closest friends what they earn. (Except me. All my friends, my former hairdresser, and a lad I met on a bus once know what I earn.) I have one friend who has been married for 13 years and swears she has no idea what her husband makes, nor would she dream of asking.

Keeping score

Things are changing in other parts of the world. Iceland, which plans to eradicate the gender pay gap by 2022, could not have brought in its recent move to force companies to if that same culture of secrecy existed there. In Scandinavian countries, there's no secrecy at all: if you want to know what someone earns, you go online and look at their tax return. Meanwhile, a handful of companies in the US, including Whole Foods and start-up Buffer, publish the salaries of employees. Anyone can look it up and see that, for example, Buffer "Happiness Hero" Todd earns $64,397 a year.

There was a time when we thought the world would end if we published the prices paid for houses. It didn’t, and maybe now it’s time we did the same for salaries.

One way or another, this last taboo is eventually going to topple. Research suggests that millennials don’t have the same hang-ups about talking about salary. They don’t believe that what they get paid is an accurate reflection of their value in the world. They’re dead right. It’s only by talking more openly about money that we’ll see it for what it is: a means of exchange; a useful way of keeping score – not some divine, immutable measure of our worth as humans.

That doesn’t mean we should put up with getting less of it than we’re entitled to. Recently, I got talking to a colleague in an industry in which I do occasional freelance work. I steered the conversation on to the subject of rates, and discovered he’s making over twice the daily amount I earn for similar work. Sometimes, being a chronic over-sharer has its benefits.