Being a woman and talking about money: why is it still off limits?

A woman in the US had a job interview terminated because she brought up the subject of salary. What is it about money that makes everyone so uncomfortable? 

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By Marisa Bate on

If you work in my industry, even mentioning that there might be a salary involved can feel inappropriate. 

The media – like most sought-after industries, such as the arts, fashion etc – widely employ the line of “you’re lucky to be here" and because “you’re lucky to be here” money is a mere bonus, an added extra. All through my career, I’ve been warned against talking about money or, if I really have to, I should discuss the subject like handling a nuclear bomb: be careful, don’t offend, flatter, seem grateful. One time, an editor on a supposedly feminist women’s magazine told me to “go and work in a bank” if I wanted more money. Another told me “to think long-term” and dissuaded me from the pushing the subject, as if some thinly-veiled threat of what would happen to my career if I kept mentioning being paid.  


In the web of self-doubt and not rocking boats, talking about money is the final frontier because it means suggesting you have value in a traditionally corporate, masculine sense. On all accounts, this is not a woman’s ‘place’

The line “you’re lucky to be here” not only reflects the ego of most people in the media, a cliched but true reality, but is also a very smart way of paying people very little. Instead, you’re compensated through the privilege of a byline or a cool email signature, except this doesn’t really help with rent or council tax or paying off student loans. And because of this, you don’t really deserve to be paid properly. So desperate are we to get these jobs (because they are highly prized, because society says it’s cool and because sometimes it is also a truly great job), we don’t mention it either, in sheer terror of rocking the boat. No, we knew we’d never be millionaires, but wow, this is something else. And so this dance of silence begins. Whatever you do, don’t mention the money, and you can be sure as hell your boss won’t.

And so salaries aren’t always advertised on job descriptions; people don’t ever disclose their earnings – even to their partners, in some cases. I’ve sat in four round of interviews before I found the courage to ask what I might be paid. This week, a  woman in America actually had her interview terminated for broaching the subject. Salaries and money – in certain industries – are intentionally shrouded in secrecy, God forbid those pesky employees dare bring it up and have the audacity to ask for more. And as a result, companies have thrived off the back of whole armies of unpaid interns and legions of underpaid individuals. This is no revelation but it doesn’t hurt to remind yourself every now and then. 

But it’s not always so cynical, either. We Brits have a culture of not talking about Difficult Things. And money is considered a Difficult Thing. But why? We all know we need to get paid, do get paid, have to pay staff. So why is it the Great Unspoken? I’ve heard some business owners suggest that a too obvious interest in money might lead them to believe that a candidate is not committed to the company for the “right” reasons. But the motivations that employers understandably prioritise  –  loyalty, hard work, commitment–  don’t have to mutually exclude an interest in a good, fair salary. It’s troubling if we’re at the stage in which talking about money or asking for more money suggests you are selfish, driven by an alternative motive or a cunning plan. Of course, there’s only one party that is going to benefit from this…

And this all gets even trickier (like most things) when you’re a woman. We’re bombarded with mixed messages: Demand more! Negotiate harder! But always be yourself! It doesn’t come “naturally” to us, if by “naturally" we mean a patriarchal socialisation that keeps men on top and makes women feel guilty and without value. As women, we are on the back foot when it comes to recognising our self-worth – and this only helps keep the conversation of money in the shade. Do we really deserve a pay rise? Won’t they laugh at me? What have I actually contributed? Why do I think I’m good enough for this? In the web of self-doubt and not rocking boats, talking about money is the final frontier because it means suggesting you have value in a traditionally corporate, masculine sense. On all accounts, this is not a woman’s ‘place’. 

So we’ve got to start being more transparent and by “we” I mean the people writing the jobs ad; the people doing the hiring; money can’t be a dirty conversation that somehow signifies your lack of commitment or negates from your abilities. A job is a two way street; not a favour, or a privilege. (And yes, there are gobby chancers that employers need to protect themselves from, and yes, they are running a business; but most business succeed because of hardworking people pushing round the cogs, not in spite of them). 

I won’t tell you how to talk about money because I don’t want to be another voice dictating at women, christ knows we’ve got enough of those. But I will say this: talking about isn't money inappropriate, illegal or reckless. It isn’t selfish, stupid or careerist. Yes, there are ways to be smart about it, of course, but remember this when you’re selling yourself for your dream role; you might be a million different things but you deserve to be paid and you are absolutely, categorically, 100 per cent, not lucky. 


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Work Advice
women at work

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