Let me tell you what I earn – how can we overturn salary secrecy?
Written for If You Could Jobs—June 6, 2022
"How much do you earn?"
Theoretically a simple question. But in practice? It's not so straightforward.
As a junior, you're pretty candid amongst your peers. "Does this sound right to you?" Comparison is often the only way to judge your worth, especially in your first salary discussions clouded with awkwardness and anxiety.
Around midweight, some secrecy descends. You become aware your peers don't mention their pay rises. Your boss insinuates (or even outright says) that it's not something to be discussed. You keep it to yourself, unsure if you're progressing at the same rate as everyone else. In most cases, this is where women aren't as forthright in negotiating, let alone encouraged to. Another place the wage gap widens.
As you climb to senior, you invest more time in research. Brilliant resources are available that show anonymous salary contributions across markets, geographies and roles. You look to other job ads to compare (those that show a pay range) and consider how you'd negotiate a diagonal move.
But truthfully, no combination of this learned or found knowledge compares to a frank conversation with someone at your level, sharing their salary.
When I moved to Australia, I reached out to some people for just that, unsure about the cost of living or whether the salary I got offered was fair. One Creative Director was shocked at the ask and slightly cagey about the answer. In a defiant response, I began openly disclosing my pay progression and practising the transparency I wished the industry would show, especially with junior team members.
Without asking outright, there's only one other occasion where the veil falls, in my experience it's usually at the pub once you've handed in your notice. Everyone around the table leans in at the mention of pay packets. A mixture of excitement, relief, and nerves as people show their hands. But often, this brief moment of honesty is tarnished, when you learn you're not matched to your peers. Another exposé of the pay gap. Sadly, the NDA podcast DMs suggest I'm not alone in this experience.
So the next question we ask is, "How much will I earn?"
A bigger conversation is beginning around job ads disclosing salaries. The absence of figures is starting to register as a red flag. Job boards are prioritising positions with all the information. People are questioning 'Depending on experience' or ‘competitive’ salary descriptions, and Twitter is periodically descending into debates on the pros & cons.
This answer doesn't feel as straightforward to me. For some agencies, it seems a no brainer. They're offering a fair wage, matching the industry standard or even going gun-ho to attract the best talent. What's not to declare? By wearing their intentions on their sleeve, they'll appeal to a much wider pool of candidates. So why the reluctance? Do they avoid disclosing for fear of internal repercussions? Perhaps those in leadership are still subconsciously bound by the historic unspoken salary laws? If companies have got nothing to hide, then why are some still hiding.
For smaller agencies or not-for-profits I can understand the hesitation. Maybe they can't match the going rate, or want to hire people rather than specific positions. But I think candidates deserve to know the whole truth. Maybe their inboxes won't be as full of candidates, but the CVs that land there will be more relevant and serious, people who are in the right situation to be considered. Won't we all benefit from a fuller picture of the compensation we can expect within the industry?
In my new podcast, The NDA Podcast, there's an upcoming episode called 'Salary secrecy & lies'. Everyone is excited to tune in. It's been getting the most traction on socials – my DMs are crammed full of good, bad and pretty ugly stories from our industry. But when pushed, no one is willing to come on air to talk about it. It's too obvious which studio I've come from. I don't want to upset anyone. I'm not sure I'm making enough to talk about it.
The secrecy set by the creative industries is dictating how individuals talk about salary, a vicious cycle I can't see how we'll break. Let alone being a major contributor to the ever-present pay gap between genders. The money forecast isn't looking good.
So here goes nothing. How much do I earn?
As a junior in the West Country, I started on £18k (eight years ago) and went up in £3k/4k increments until I reached £36k as a senior (after five years at the agency)
Moving to Sydney (where salaries are much higher) I started on $90k* and hit $110k** by the time I left two years later.
As for my freelance rate, who knows. Still figuring that out. Answers on a postcard, please.
* Around £50k at the time
The fastest way to overturn salary secrecy is to encourage positive, constructive conversations about money. Not just amongst peers. We should be asking the companies we work for to do the same. The NDA Podcast is hoping to kickstart some of those conversations by asking creatives of every level to be upfront about what they earn. The IYC salary report lifts the lid, giving knowledge and power to employees. It’s over to us now to rip that lid off. So the million dollar question, how much do you earn?
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