Illustration: Smisson Hughes


It’s time women kickstarted an honest conversation about money

When it comes to money, women have got to start blowing their own trumpets, says Poorna Bell

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By Poorna Bell on

Male friends are an important sounding board because they provide a different perspective on almost every aspect of life. The most striking of which is around money and career. In my experience, they are direct and honest about the amount that they earn, in a way that myself and my female friends are not able to be.

Maybe it’s easy for them to be so confident about money because, after all, they belong to the gender being paid more simply by virtue of having a Y chromosome. But, putting the patriarchy aside for one moment, there have been significant conversations this year that are prompting a new sense of empowerment for women, by women, around money.

The biggest game-changer was undeniably Section 78 – legislation written into the Equality Act 2010, which was implemented last year and, this year, meant companies with more than 250 employees had to publish their gender pay gap data. This rendered an unprecedented level of transparency because, where pay had once been this shadowy thing of whispers, there it was in black and white: eight out of 10 companies in the UK pay men more and now we knew exactly which companies these were. 

In no way should women being empowered around pay detract from the fact that companies have an urgent responsibility to close the gender pay gap. It’s not up to women to fix a problem caused and perpetuated by men. But what is becoming increasingly obvious is that we have to kickstart a new conversation around a woman’s right to be ambitious – and their desire to be paid well.

One of the most visible markers for change is the entertainment industry, where bold and big statements are being made. Poldark actress Eleanor Tomlinson this week called for pay equality with male lead Aidan Turner while, last month, actress Claire Foy received £200,000 in backdated pay from her lead role in The Crown, when it was revealed she was paid less than co-star Matt Smith. 

A big part of what is holding us back is also the fear of being unpopular

In a piece that went viral, American author Jessica Knoll summed it up perfectly in a piece she wrote for The New York Times called I Want To Be Rich And I’m Not Sorry. It prompted a lot of conversation around money and women: why are we so uncomfortable about it?

Knoll remarks that one of the biggest problems is that women who say they want to be paid well are viewed as being obnoxious and that she herself has struggled with her ambition being viewed as bossy. Men don’t care if the same accusations are levelled at them; if anything, being motivated by money is seen as a marker for success.

The fact is that the gender pay gap is not just going to be closed by companies doing the right thing. If that was the case, we wouldn’t have a gender pay gap. There would be an equal number of women to men on boards and in decision-making positions of power.

Undeniably, we have to acknowledge that because women have been mostly conditioned to serve and nurture rather than provide and be forthright, we see domestic success as having higher value than economic success. Men don’t and, for evidence, just take a look at the world order.

So, what needs to change?

Sam Smethers, CEO of The Fawcett Society, says that unequal pay thrives on secrecy. That means owning the fact that you are on a good salary because you do a good job and being transparent around it helps to empower other women.

“There are lots of low-paid women who can’t fight the battle,” she says, “so you have to fight the battle for them.”

Highly paid women may balk at the idea of revealing what they earn – as would men. And understandably so – Knoll notes that women get punished when they exhibit the same ambitions as men: women are “rich bitches”; there is no male equivalent.

Author and journalist Laura Jane Williams, who recently ran her first event Superlatively Rude Live, made a point of saying on Twitter that she had paid people who spoke at her event, and on time.

The more women talk about money... the more women will talk about money

I asked Williams about why she tweeted that message and she said: “Because the more women talk about money... the more women will talk about money. A woman earning her own money in an unapologetic way is a political act. We've gotta do it like men do it.”

But why do women find it so hard to be open about their money and ambition in the first place?

Danielle Newnham, co-founder of F equals, a female fashion brand and empowering women’s platform, says: “It stems from a more reserved view on discussing achievements and success, which I have found to be true based on several hundred interviews I have done with both male and female founders.

“Historically, wealth was not seen the same way for men versus women due to social norms. Women were expected to stay home to raise a family and not even allowed to handle money. So, our success back then was measured by how well we performed as mothers, whereas for men it was measured by how much they earned, what house they had and what car they drove.”

A big part of what is holding us back is also the fear of being unpopular, something Knoll mentions.

Williams says: “We want to be liked, so we don't want to risk pissing people off by asking for ‘too much’. It's another way of staying small, so it is so uncomfortable when we step outside of this – but like Hilary Rushford (Dean Street Style), says, it's better to be profitable than popular.”

I can certainly relate and have been terrible at bringing up pay either in negotiations or whether someone asks me to do work for free. As a result, I always under-charge or agree to do the free work because I’m worried, if I don’t, I won’t be the person picked for the job, despite being the most qualified.

A big part of that is imposter syndrome, which generally is thought to affect women in particular – where you deem yourself unworthy for a job (despite being fully capable of doing it) and are petrified you’ll be found out. It’s internalised bias and is fuelled when you are competing with men. A huge gulf is then created because not only are women not charging what they are worth, a rigged system means that even when men royally fuck up in the workplace, they still somehow get promoted – or, as Michelle Obama said recently about the practice, “fail up”.

However, while we might not be able to stop men from failing up overnight, we can control the narrative around what we charge. Natalie Campbell, award-winning entrepreneur and co-founder of A Very Good Company, says, “Women consistently charge low and when we charge the equivalent of what a man charges, people are confused by it. We need to ask how much people are charging and be transparent about it. No one is scared of talking about money when you have to produce the work, so we need to get over that.”

Susan Sheehan, founder of Back Yourself Mentoring and a former CFO and COO, says that learning about your company’s financial performance, and researching the salary for your industry and role, is critical. “I was speaking to a COO of a tech company recently and he said he had been interviewing for engineers and the women were asking for £10-£15K less than he was willing to pay. Afterwards, he spoke to one of them and she hadn’t researched the market before going out to job search. We need to do what is within our control before we enter these conversations.”

As women, we also have to be aware of what we’re asking other women to do, and whether we would accept it for ourselves. Again, it’s not our job to fix pay disparity for ourselves, but we can start with good practices within our own gender.

We’ve got to put aside our sheepishness and awkwardness and not undercut what we are really worth, based on what we think someone will accept

A good starting point is to not make other women feel like shit in pay negotiations. “There has been more than one occasion where I’ve been asked to name my fee and been met with a sharp intake of breath,” author Daisy Buchanan said. “Perhaps it’s all in my head, but I’d rather someone be upfront and say, ‘Sorry, our budget is x,’ than make a value judgement on the way I value myself.”

We also need to remember that, while women struggle as a gender to get paid fairly, women of colour face a double whammy of gender and racial bias. The Fawcett Society raised concerns about ethnic minority women being left behind in the conversation, finding black African women experiencing the largest full-time gender pay gap at 19.6 per cent, and Pakistani and Bangladeshi women having the biggest overall pay gap at an eye-watering 26 per cent.

Leyya Sattar, co-founder of The Other Box, an organisation that celebrates and supports people of colour in the creative industries, says: “As women of colour, getting your foot in the door in the first place is difficult, but when you find yourself in the position, you’re generally offered lower salaries compared with your white counterparts and culturally made to feel like you should be grateful for the role in the first place.

“There needs to be transparency within organisations to allow women, but more so women of colour to feel confident to be able to have these conversations so they feel comfortable and confident to have the discussions about being paid equally. Institutional sexism and racism still exist and women of colour are exposed to this on a daily basis, which can be exhausting to navigate, as well as performing well in your job. Other candidates don't have to deal with these micro-aggressions and exhaustion.”

The uncomfortable truth is that some women need to acknowledge their blind spots and get on board with supporting women in the fullest sense, whether that’s offering to pay properly or champion pay rises for direct reports. Or, considering that the number of female freelancers has been steadily rising due to a number of reasons including flexible working required for childcare, damn well paying them a decent rate.

Newnham has had first-hand experience, saying, “I would naturally hope that women in positions of power would lead this change, but that is not always the case. I know many examples where women have treated other women on their team poorly and paid them less than they were due.

“Perhaps the lack of women in powerful positions makes the environment more competitive between women, but regardless female empowerment is a mindset – and they should ask themselves daily how they can empower more women, whether at work or in their community.”

The fact is most people – and I include myself in this – have a dream scenario in which your boss notices the hard work you’ve put in and hands you a wedge of cash just for being brilliant.

But, to me, this is almost akin to that other fairytale that has pushed back women’s liberation for decades: expecting a knight in shining armour to come and rescue you, rather than you rescuing yourself. If we wouldn’t accept this in our personal life, then we definitely shouldn’t accept it in our work life.

Since doing the research for this article, I’ve applied some of the advice and techniques in a number of ways. I’ve pushed back gently on rates and have been elated when the person on the other side has increased them. I’ve also said no to doing free work and have then been told they’d “try and find budget”. Both of these are things I never would’ve dreamed of doing for fear of losing the work, but instead I’ve augmented my own value.

We’ve got to put aside our sheepishness and awkwardness and not undercut what we are really worth, based on what we think someone will accept. Men will never do this. And we’re worth exactly the same as they are.


Illustration: Smisson Hughes
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