Like a lot of people in the UK, I spent most of last week reading and re-reading the salary list of the BBC’s biggest earners. There’s no point in me pretending that this came from a deep concern about how public money was being spent – it didn’t. Of course, I was disappointed that the BBC has such a dire gender pay gap, but a lot of my interest stemmed from nosiness. As a society we’ve become far more relaxed about discussing topics that a few years ago would have been taboo. My Facebook feed is filled with my friends’ political views, we’ll happily discuss the most intimate details of our sex lives, and you can barely open YouTube without a vlogger giving you a detailed rundown of their last period. But money, and specifically how much you earn, that’s still a no-go.
Amongst my closest friends I only know the exact salary of one of them. When I first became a freelancer I sought advice from fellow freelancers on how much to charge. The responses were generally: “Work out what the full-time salary would be and then one per cent of that is your day rate.” Or, “Each time you do a piece of work for someone put your price up by 20 per cent until they stop saying yes, then you know you’ve reached your limit.” And my favourite: “Just ask for the biggest number you can say without laughing.” None of this is bad advice but the one thing I didn’t get was a figure, nobody would tell me what they actually charged.
On finding that she wasn’t on the list of top earners but that her colleagues were, Emily Maitlis has allegedly refused to resign her contract unless her salary is given a significant bump. Without the publication of these salaries she would have gone on being paid less than the men sat next to her. I’ve met Maitlis and she does not strike me as the sort of woman who would feel nervous about asking for a pay rise, so I don’t think the gap can be blamed on her not asking. It’s there because she didn’t know how much she could ask for. Without this transparency the pay gap would have continued.
All companies, not just the BBC, love this ignorance; it allows them to keep starting salaries low and negotiate hard on pay rises. An HR director once told me that her standard practice when recruiting a new hire was to ask the candidate what they were currently earning and then add ten percent. Rather than offering the candidate what the job was worth they were only interested in getting the best deal for the company. So if your employer isn’t going to be honest with you and no one will tell you, how on earth do you know what to ask for?
I will be eternally grateful to the female boss who pulled me aside one day and simply said, ‘You’re not being paid enough, put your fee up’
Negotiation coach and author of We Have a Deal, Natalie Reynolds, says it comes down to doing your research. “Go into any negotiation with as much knowledge as you can gather,” she says. “Know what you want and have specific examples to back it up; also research what the other side might want. What will their worries and concerns be and how can you ensure you have a response for these ready to go.”
For me the most important part of research has been simply asking. I finally got tired of trying to work out how much I should charge and so I sat down with a colleague and just said, “I’m thinking of charging a client £250 for a half-day workshop, does that sound unreasonable to you?” She looked me straight in the eye and said, “I charge twice that. Double it.” She also shared with me what she knew about competitor pricing, what her experience had taught her about company budgets and how much work each client would expect for that fee. I haven’t looked back since.
The other thing we can all do for each other is look out for those who are being underpaid and tell them. I will be eternally grateful to the female boss who pulled me aside one day and simply said, “You’re not being paid enough, put your fee up.” She didn’t tell me what to ask for so I made some calls to people who’d worked for this company before. I found out that a guy who did the same work as I was charging five times as much. I made a decision there and then to increase my fee.
Talking about money is awkward and embarrassing but it empowers all of us. In the same way that we never used to talk about politics or periods, freeing people up to be honest means we all learn, and we can turn that knowledge into (economic) power.