Salary transparency in Silicon Valley is a dicey proposition

Silicon Valley is a rough place for women, people of colour, disabled people, and members of other marginalised groups. If you work in the tech industry, you can face constant and significant harassment and barriers in the workplace, from being looked over for promotion to getting racialised hate mail from coworkers. One very consistent thread runs across the board, though: Salary inequality. In a country where you’re not supposed to talk about money because it’s simply not the done thing, tech companies profit because not all of their employees are paid equally, and many of those employees are not aware of it.

In private companies, there’s very much a culture that it’s not polite to talk about money. People generally don’t disclose how much they make, they don’t like being asked, and they’re afraid to ask each other. There seems to be something of a block when it comes to talking openly about something pretty fundamental: Who is getting paid what, and are people who perform equal work being paid equally for it? Because if they are not, or if pay inequalities are quite radical, that’s a problem, and it needs to be addressed.

At some companies, like Google, employees set up stealth spreadsheets to share (often anonymised) salary information. In other companies, people have been bold enough to speak out in public, sometimes even taking their concerns about salary and fairness out into the broader community. The results are sometimes deeply troubling, and they’re evidence of the swift and merciless approach to handling issues relevant to marginalised communities in Silicon Valley, for all that the region likes to claim it’s progressive, forward-thinking, and dedicated to creating a better world.

Employees who are bold enough to disclose their salaries and point out that they are not equal to those of their more privileged counterparts may be penalised for it. While retaliatory firing, demotion, and other penal practices aren’t technically legal, that doesn’t stop companies from doing it anyway, and once you’ve been punished, you may not have the tools to file a lawsuit to protect yourself. This leaves people vulnerable: Either stay silent and keep your job, or speak out and risk everything, which simply isn’t an option for everyone in Silicon Valley — especially marginalised people.

The fact is that there’s a persistent salary inequality problem across the tech industry, and that lack of transparency solidifies that problem. When people don’t know how much employees make at a company before they get hired, it’s difficult to negotiate fair pay, as they have no frame of reference. Is an offer reasonable? A lowball? What do other employees make in terms of benefits like options, time off, and health care? All of these things are important questions to be able to answer, and when people don’t have the tools to do so, they’re at a disadvantage, something recruiters and human resources departments definitely leverage, especially in a competitive industry where people frequently shuffle from company to company in what can turn into a revolving door effect — as companies alternately woo talented employees from each other, they want to keep their compensation packages shrouded in secrecy to avoid attracting the attention of curious jobseekers who will challenge the salaries they’re offered.

It’s also a problem when people already on the job are looking for parity. Whether that means asking for periodic raises commensurate with time spent at a company and work performed, or renegotiating alongside a promotion, people need to know how much their cohort are making, or they’re going to have limited tools when it comes to fighting for fair wages. Chillingly, many companies really actively encourage disparities among their employees, and one way they do this is by suppressing conversation about salaries. If you don’t know what your predecessor made or what someone in a comparable role is making now, it’s impossible to know if a company is offering a fair amount. And if no one is willing to tell you, you can’t exactly push back on whatever the company is offering.

Numerous reports of people being penalised by their employers for publicly discussing their salaries are littered across both industry media and the larger media, and this is an issue that appears to be growing, not shrinking, with time. This contributes to the immense injustice of the tech industry, where even employees of huge tech companies can experience disparities and hardships, and I’m not just talking about the contracted labour (who are not employees and thus don’t count legally in this particular instance) like those shuttle drivers, chefs, janitors, and many others who perform the tasks that keep tech employees happy and their companies running.

No, some direct employees of tech companies are financially disadvantaged by firms that put profits over people, and always will, because this is how capitalism works. No matter how much tech firms talk about social responsibility, their primary responsibility is to their shareholders. Shareholders may express an interest in looking for for social welfare, but intriguingly, that doesn’t usually extend to employees of the company itself — they want evidence that a firm is using sound environmental practices, for example, or investing in other companies known to engage in ethical practices. Yet, the treatment of a company’s own workers isn’t necessarily an ethical concern for shareholders, and it should be, because they’re the ones in a position of power to do something about it.

It’s telling that despite repeated calls for transparency in terms of both statistical breakdowns of representation at tech companies and salaries, few tech companies have responded. If they have nothing to hide, they’re certainly doing a very good job of making it look like they have something to feel guilty about.

Image: Silicon Valley from above, Patrick Nouhailler, Flickr