This story is part of our Salary Series, where we take a deep dive into the world of pay: how it's set, how it's changing, and what's next. Read the rest of the series.
When Jessica Maria's friend told her how much he used to make as a marketer at the tech company where she had at one point also been offered a job, she was surprised. Her friend, a man, previously earned $25,000 more than what the company had offered her: for the same job, at the same place, and equipped with the same amount of experience.
Curious, she pushed further. "You don't have to answer this, but would you be comfortable telling me what you're making right now at your current company?" she asked him. He had since moved on to another job. That was when she found out he was at this point in their careers making $100,000 more than her.
"It was mind-blowing," she told Protocol. "I thought I was being well-paid."
Mind the pay gap
Maria's experience is not singular. The gender pay gap in tech is well documented, with men in tech receiving offers 3% higher on average than women, and the disparity is even greater for Black and Latinx people. In recent years, there's been a greater push for salary transparency, with more people across the corporate world sharing their compensation in crowdsourced spreadsheets and disseminating self-reported data on platforms like levels.fyi. The shift is partly generational: A 2020 report from Klarna found that 50% of millennials, compared to 41% of older generations, believe it's important to talk openly about finances.
Still, it's easier to enter a number in a cell on an anonymous spreadsheet than it is to have an honest conversation about pay with real people, in real life. Talking about money is still taboo. "That's the way I was raised," said Adam Doud, a consumer tech writer and podcaster. Like age and weight, money is just not something you ask people about, he said.
But when men do speak up, the ripple effects can be huge.
For software engineer Lauren Hasson, hearing what her male co-worker made straight from his lips led to her quitting her job, tripling her salary within two years and starting an organization dedicated to helping other women in tech advocate for themselves in their careers.
Women in tech have developed whisper networks where they share compensation figures with each other, but in Hasson's view, that's not actually as helpful as men sharing, since women are more likely to be underpaid.
She also believes that knowing what someone else makes itself is not enough to act on. Hasson and other negotiation experts recommend that employees looking to get a raise or salary adjustment come armed with data gleaned from as many sources as possible: databases, salary calculators, crowdsourced figures. Once you have gathered as many compensation figures as possible and have a good sense of where you fit in the market, that's when you can feel comfortable having a conversation.
When it comes time to speak to a manager, do not name names, Hasson said. Instead, she said, frame it as: "I've learned from verified sources that individuals are making X, and I'm making this. There's a discrepancy. Can you help me understand this? What needs to happen to bridge this gap?"
Employees are talking, what can managers do?
For management, compensation and HR experts recommend getting ahead of whisper networks by regularly reviewing and analyzing compensation alongside employee demographic data, setting up consistent salary targets and communicating transparently to employees about how their salaries are set.
"Pay transparency has always meant people know what they make, they know why they make what they make and they know how they can make more," said Bethanye McKinney Blount, co-founder and CEO of Compaas, a compensation software company.
According to Blount, companies often run into issues when they start making exceptions during the recruiting process. If you find yourself paying one person "whatever he needs" to get him in the door, be prepared to adjust other people's salaries or clearly document the reason for the exception. And if you find yourself having a lot of recruiting exceptions, perhaps it's time to revisit those targets.
Another way company leaders can address pay inequity is by re-examining practices that perpetuate it, like doling out discretionary sign-on bonuses, taking "an unstructured approach" to yearly raises and asking employees to share salary requirements, according to Natalie Johnson, co-founder and managing director at Paradigm, a DEI consultancy.
Men are starting the conversation
Despite the fact that talking about pay is protected by federal law, there still exists a widely-held perception that doing so is not allowed. For some, that feeling is shifting. "The secretiveness only serves the companies that employ us," said Maria.
And then there's the fact that it's one thing to share when asked, and a whole other thing to volunteer that information unprompted. For Pedram Navid, a data engineer, it's less intimidating to speak up first when it's with someone you trust and feel close to.
In his case, Navid felt compelled to speak to a female engineer at the tech startup where they were both working when he suspected she was being underpaid. She had asked for a raise in the past and had been told, "Not yet, but soon." When he told her what he was making, they both realized that it was over $30,000 more than her. "I don't think she realized it was as bad as it was," he said. He doesn't know what she did with the information, but he wanted her to know so she could at least understand where she fit relative to other people there.
Navid also advises fellow men in tech to take it a step further. Don't just tell your female colleagues how much you make; also advocate for them with decision-makers.
Stacy Devino, an Android developer, also didn't ask her friend to tell her what he made. He volunteered the info one day when she was interviewing for a job on his team at a large retail company. According to Devino, he told her that everyone on the team knew what everyone else was making, down to the bonus percentages, and that he was sharing their collective intel with her so that she could negotiate appropriately.
When she finally got the job offer from the company, the figure was "pretty low" and in line with "what 21, 22 year olds that were already on the team were making," said Devino. Meanwhile, she was already a leading developer in her field and had been invited to speak at industry conferences.
With her friend's information, Devino negotiated up from an initial offer of $160,000 and a 10% end-of-year bonus to $185,000 with a $15,000 signing bonus and a 15% end-of-year bonus, as well as guarantees to eventually be moved up to a $200,000 base.
She said she felt confident asking for more because she knew what her coworkers were making, which helped her gauge what the company would be willing to do.
Other employees at the organization were not as transparent with each other about their pay, with consequences, she observed. Through conversations with BIPOC coworkers on a separate engineering team, Devino, who is white, realized they were being paid salaries that she found "unacceptable." She shared her salary and encouraged them to speak to management, which they did, ultimately leading to salary adjustments.
Employees are opening up with each other about pay, and for companies to keep up, they should consider disclosing pay practices and salary ranges, according to Garry Straker, a senior compensation consultant at Salary.com. The risk comes when those practices aren't consistent and employees discover disparities that can't be legitimately explained, he said.
As for Maria, when her colleague shared his salary with her, she started asking for more. In her next job negotiation, she bumped the salary range that she asked for to $80,000 more than she would have capped it at before, and "nobody batted an eye." "I asked for numbers I never would have asked for before that, and I was successful," she said.