I can’t count the number of times I’ve compared rates with fellow writers and found out that we haven’t been paid the same for similar pieces. Or, to be blunt—that I’ve been paid less.
This is where I’d love to say that each time, I was outraged enough to email whoever I’d been working with to ask why I was worth less, and that after each conversation I announced the disparity to anybody who would listen and cautioned the masses to stay away from so-and-so at such-and-such unless they were professional negotiators. I’d love to tell you that I’ve learned that to be paid differently isn’t personal, that it’s business, and that my biggest achievement has been learning to be transparent about my rates and my limits and that if I’m met with an offer that’s almost insulting, I’ll take my proverbial ball and go home. It would thrill me for this to be a piece about how, after ten years writing professionally, I’d learned to advocate for myself because all we have to do is ask (right, ladies?) and that knowing your worth will eventually equate what you get paid.
But disappointingly—and likely unsurprisingly—that isn’t the case. Instead, I typically greet news that a colleague has been paid more with a static smile and nod and dutiful, “Oh wow!” I remain cagey about what I’ve earned and what I’ve asked for, and blame myself for not being a little more forward, a little more aggressive or better at my job. I’ve only told a friend that I was paid less than they were a handful of times, and each time I waited for them to judge me (despite none of my friends being terrible) because wow. How, at 33, have I not learned to step up?
For me, the guilt and shame about money runs deep. I grew up thinking it wasn’t polite to ask about money, so I didn’t. My first part-time job was minimum wage (shout-out to earning $6.40/hour in 2001), and any wage increase at jobs going forward felt like a compliment. As far as I was concerned, those few cents meant that the company thought I was valuable and I was terrified that by asking for more, I’d be branded ungrateful and fired immediately. So, by the time I was a full-time freelancer, I was so desperate for work that I would take almost anything I was offered—a feeling I still haven’t been able to shake. Ten years in and I somehow still want to keep working in this cursed industry, so despite being one of the loudest people on the planet in general, when it comes to money I keep my head down, keep quiet, and hope someone will just offer me a reasonable rate for sentences typed, please and thank you.
Even though I know that’s wrong.
It’s wrong to feel guilty over being shafted by higher-ups and it’s wrong to internalize blame for systemic unfairness. But alas, here we are—and it’s not like I’m the only one who feels the way. If friends ask how I negotiate, I tell them what I want to do, not what I’ve actually done: I remind them to lay down the law, that their writing is their livelihood and that the worst thing someone can say is “no.” And for a second, I almost believe it… Until it comes to my own income. Because according to myself, I should be grateful, I should be better, I should trust that the game is a fair one and that everyone expects their employees and contractors to talk so any and all sliding scales have somehow managed to correct themselves. And I definitely shouldn’t talk about it.
But I should, and so should every other woman and female-identifying person. As a white, cis, hetero woman, I earn more than every other woman (statistically speaking). And if I feel this way, perched atop my hill of privilege, I know marginalized women, who make even less money, likely struggle even more. Which is why it’s crucial to consider the way we talk about income. Or, more to the point, we need to stop subscribing to the ideology that “knowing your worth” or “leaning in” will eliminate all wage discrepancy and discrimination. It won’t. It never has. It never will.
The system still has to change in order for us to be paid fairly. And we change that system by chipping away at the norms created by people we report to. We change it by talking about what we earn with our coworkers and contemporaries. We remind ourselves that we’re not seconds from being let go simply for asking for what’s fair. But perhaps most importantly, instead of internalizing one’s embarrassment and fear of seeming foolish or amateur by not making as much as the minds around us, those of us in positions of privilege need to swallow our pride, talk about what we earn, and then use what we earn to advocate for equal pay across all boards, not just for ourselves.
The wage gap exists because of a lack of transparency. It exists because we’re made to feel special for earning a living wage. (And sometimes, we’re hardly earning that.) It exists because we’re fed rhetoric that anyone who doesn’t earn the same simply hasn’t worked hard enough, asked loud enough or learned to be some kind of “boss bitch.” But in reality, that rhetoric only pushes women down further. It teaches us that anybody who’s making less deserves to make less, because they didn’t figure out the game. But the game is rigged. It’s built on guilt and fear and shame.
So if you want to know what I earned for what, just ask me. I have nothing to lose, because until we chip away at the system so much that it collapses, we all do.
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