I remember the first time I candidly told a friend what I earned. I had received a job offer and was trying to make sense of how it compared to my current role in terms of benefits, perks and base pay. The stakes were high. Accepting the new job meant moving countries and starting a new life in a place where they spoke French and ate mostly peppery food. I needed a sounding board. If I was going to uproot my life and be forced to wrap my tongue around a new language when it wasn’t getting burnt at meal times, it would better be worth my while.
So my friend and I talked money. Compared and contrasted. Got into details about career aspirations. Tried to quantify how much being homesick would cost me by calculating airfare and time spent flying back and forth.
I was nervous about living away from friends and family but I had done it before and knew I could do it again for the right price. In the end, I did not take the job. It all came down to the fact that although I would be earning way more in that country, its eye watering cost of living meant that in the end, I was better off right here in Nairobi.
I stayed put and while West Africa remains a distant dream— a life that could have been but ultimately wasn’t—what changed is that I lost all shyness around discussing money.
Scratch that. I lost my shyness about discussing wages and earnings.
That salaries are such a touchy topic is strange because we generally talk about money all the time. We have few qualms about disclosing how much we paid for those shoes, or how much we spent at brunch, or even how much our rent is. If a friend asks we’ll tell them how much our car cost, and where they can get an even better deal. You want a couch like this, this is how much I paid for it—call this number and say I sent you. Except, our conversations about money are incomplete. While we’re happy to talk about how much we’re spending, we’d rather die than disclose our earnings.
My theory is that we’re like this because we equate our wages to our innate worth as human beings. It’s almost like that figure that HR decided to put on our payslip is a statement of our whole entire lives. And because many times the figure is less than what we deserve, it comes accompanied by feelings of shame and inadequacy—“if I were worth more they’d pay me more” type of feelings. So you see, discussing this figure with Pat and finding out, god forbid, they earn more than me? That might be the blow that our relationship might never recover from.
But refusing to disclose our earnings only serves the companies that exploit us, because without data on market rates we are poor negotiators. It’s true, I have evidence.
In 2020, I came up for a promotion at my previous job. They were going to make me manager. Yay. HR made me an offer, which I declined to sign right away and instead asked for a bit more time to think about it. I knew I deserved more but I would need to present a strong case. So I went to work. Over a week, I approached colleagues at managerial positions in the same organisation and asked one question, “ how much do you earn?”
When they got over their shock, and once I explained why I was asking, they were quite happy to divulge the information. I will forever be grateful to one in particular who told me, “if they can’t give you exactly what you’re asking for, make sure they can compensate you in other ways, for example, additional leave days.” So armed with tangible data and some chutzpah, I went back to HR and got (almost) exactly what I wanted.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that women earn less money than men for the same work. It has been found that part of the reason for this is that women do not negotiate for higher salaries. We tend to shy away from speaking up for ourselves out of fear that job offers might be taken away, or because we genuinely never considered that we might actually deserve better. Being underpaid is expensive and it adds up, because most employers will use your current pay as a reference for what they should offer you.
You probably won’t become an aggressive negotiator overnight but you can start building the muscle by deliberately talking to your friends about money. If we can openly discuss the intricacies of our sex lives, surely we should be able to discuss our salaries?
The way my friend put her analytical brain to work helping me work out how much the West Africans would need to pay me to significantly beat their inflation, meet my tax obligations, and save up a nice nest egg showed me what we truly lose by keeping our salaries a close secret.
Budgets and accounting and excel spreadsheets bore me, it’s just not how my brain works. But there are people in my circle who thrive off these things— and they are excited to help me sort out my numbers. In return, I can review their powerpoint presentations or help them write their scholarship applications. With a little vulnerability and trust, we can all secure bigger bags.