Here’s how much I earned last year. Now for the rest of you
Chris Evans on BBC gender pay gap: ‘This is the beginning of it being redressed’
Were I to ask you how many sexual partners you’ve had, you may well tell me. And, according to recent research, the same goes if I asked if you’d had an affair – or even any sexually transmitted diseases. But your income?
Apparently, you are far more likely to fill me in on your STD history than your salary. None of your business. That’s just too personal. Which is one of the reasons why this week’s revelations about pay at the BBC were so interesting to so many: it’s a glimpse of something usually hidden. One of the oft-quoted definitions of news is something someone doesn’t want you to know (all the rest being advertising). On that basis alone, this is news.
But how different things might be were we not so secretive about our salaries. If we were entirely open with everyone about what we earned, and if every business were required to publish details of what it paid to whom, I’m pretty sure we’d all benefit.
The taboo we have built around salaries suggests that we have somehow made them part of our innermost selves. We invest vast and entirely undue significance in them. It’s as if we’ve allowed money to become a measure of our worth as people: we believe our salary says something about us. This is not healthy, and is indicative of a broader cultural attitude to money, which can lead to feelings of unwarranted shame or unjustified pride.
When we’re open about money, its mystique diminishes and its hold over us weakens. A different attitude to money would help us to see it for what it is: a means of exchange, not some way of quantifying our success. It would help us see poor people not as failures, but as unfortunate. It would help us see rich people not as successful, but as lucky.
Much misery is caused when people feel so ashamed of their penury that they feel they cannot ask for help. I once knew a couple who dressed exquisitely and lived in a beautiful home, but whose spirits were being corroded by their immense debts. It took all of their courage to seek charitable help.
Indeed, openness about money can help foster healthier relationships. Some of my closest friendships are marked by this openness: we’re happy to let each other know when we’re running short of funds or in a position to help one another. And I can’t imagine married life without a joint account.
So if we don’t benefit from salary secrecy, who does? This week has given us the answer: bad employers. A culture of silence around salaries enables vast and unjust differences to persist. It’s in our employers’ interests to keep our payslips sealed. Yes, workplace tensions may grow if we all know what the person at the next desk earns. But that would be the fault of the boss, not the worker. Besides, openness about salaries may actually be good for businesses.
Pay remains one of the biggest injustices in our society. Were it any indication of real worth, then cleaners and carers would earn more than Chris Evans. But our culture of secrecy enables arbitrariness, favouritism and prejudice. It militates against efforts towards fairness. It bestows mystical qualities on money. And it warps our perceptions of ourselves and each other.
Of course, there are people who are all too open about how fantastically wealthy they are and how much they “earn”, with crass and boorish results. But it’s just some money. If it feels uncomfortable to disclose our salaries, that probably tells us something about our relationship with our pay packet.
In the interests of full disclosure, then – and I feel some trepidation about doing this – I was paid £31,538 last year, including my salary and freelance commissions. I feel like I’ve just bared a bit of my soul. But it’s just some money.
So let’s try to rid ourselves of this taboo. After all, what we are is more than what we earn.