Let’s all be less weird about talking meaningfully about money

woman at a computer

Image via Ray from LA on Flickr.

Unsurprisingly there was a new report out this week showing that women in Australia are paid 17.5 per cent less than men, we are paid less than men working in the same field in a bunch of cases, we earn less right from graduation and we retire with less superannuation.

Wendy Squires has an appropriately outraged opinion piece in The Age today asking how on earth this still happens:

Why isn’t the COAG report a call to arms? Why, when what is going on is actually illegal in this country, are we not hearing this discrimination railed against in Parliament, loudly and often? Where are enforced quotas?

And there’s another question I fear I already know the answer to: has my generation failed those following?

She answers her questions by citing Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when they should be leaning in,” – and by reflecting on her own experience – “I know in my career one of my greatest failings is asking for more – money, responsibility and opportunity. My core problem is falling victim of what another great female voice of our time, Tina Fey, describes as impostor syndrome.”

They both make very good points, but let’s be careful to avoid blaming women for being widely discriminated against. Wendy Squires’ core problem is that someone is paying her less than men, not that she finds it hard to ask them to please obey the law and pay her as much as her male counterparts. After acknowledging that discrimination is the core problem here, then yes, not “leaning in” or “asking for more” might be one condition among many that enables the discrimination to flourish. I would like to see what would happen if every female dentistry graduate told their new employers they would require an extra $14,400 before they could start work, for example.

And here is another reason this discrimination can keep happening: people are weird about talking meaningfully about money. Oh, you got your dress from an op-shop for five bucks? Amazing! I owe you $18 for the movie ticket? No worries! But if you’re wondering how much someone’s rent is or how much they get paid or where they put their savings, keep wondering. I include myself in this – one time I ran into someone I barely knew on a tram and we got talking about the area and she asked how much my rent was and I didn’t want to tell her, which makes no logical sense.

On the greatest radio show in the world This American Life recently there was a very proper lady who had a list of topics that were off-limits in conversation, including diets, how you slept and your health. She said mostly they were banned because they were boring. But talking about money was banned for a different reason: “Talking about money is considered, in certain circles, extremely rude. Not rude, just vulgar, not done,” the very proper Mrs Matthiessen said. If I stop and think about it, I certainly don’t think it was vulgar for my acquaintance to ask how much my rent was, and yet I had this weird status/class anxiety in reaction to the question.

But of course one group of people can go on getting paid more than another group of people who have the same experience if no-one knows how much anyone else is getting paid. I imagine many ABC staff will turn up to their next annual reviews armed with quite a lot more information after The Australian revealed pay details of its star broadcasters, as well as finding that women at the ABC earn 12 per cent less on average than their male colleagues.

I am training myself slowly to have these conversations. Here are some resources if you would like to do the same:

What resources have helped you talk more meaningfully about money? How do you go about having helpful discussions about this weirdly taboo topic? Let me know in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Let’s all be less weird about talking meaningfully about money

  1. Ever since I started full-time work, I’ve been better at talking about money. I figure it’s not a reflection on me or my competence, but simply on the economics of my industry, which most people know isn’t going swimmingly anyway.
    Maybe that’s the positive of journalism being dirt-poor – everyone agrees everyone SHOULD be paid more, given their expertise, but it’s acknowledged that no one goes into journalism for the money anyway, so it’s not that big a deal.

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