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Sorry, Kate Winslet: Talking About Salary Isn’t “Vulgar”: It’s a Prerequisite to Achieving Workplace Equality

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Just like parents need to have that awkward sex talk with kids, coworkers need to have that same uncomfortable pay talk with each other.

Movie stars like Jennifer Lawrence have been speaking out against the appalling gap between what women and men earn in Hollywood. But fellow British actor Kate Winslet finds this frank conversation about money awkward and unpleasant, as she explained in a BBC interview earlier this week.

“I’m having such a problem with these conversations,” said Winslet, who stars in the new movie “Steve Jobs. “I understand why they are coming up but maybe it’s a British thing. I don’t like talking about money; it’s a bit vulgar isn’t it?”

Winslet isn’t the only person who’d rather avoid talking openly about pay. In fact, most people prefer to discuss their sex lives over their salary. As Elizabeth Weingarten recently noted at a “gender pay gap” conference at the Harvard Club in New York: “Asking my mom how much my dad made was harder than asking her about sex.” Weingarten, serves as deputy director of the New America Foundation, and recently published an extensive analysis salary transparency in More magazine.

Many workers’ and women’s rights activists feel that just as parents should have that awkward talk about sex with their kids, coworkers need to have that same uncomfortable pay talk at the office. Open conversations about wealth and compensation — the kind that Winslet wants to avoid – are among the most effective ways to address pay discrimination and the gender pay gap.

That’s because arming women with solid information about what everyone is earning gives them the facts they need to advocate for their fair share.

“Salary transparency is the single best protection against gender bias, racial bias or orientation bias,” said CEO of SumAll, Dane Atkinson. His company makes salary information public to all employees, which in turns makes hiring and negotiations pretty straightforward. No one has to guess in the dark when they make a salary bid upon hire or ask for a raise as time goes on.

And it’s actually becoming easier to find out what people make, thanks to companies adopting “pay transparency” policies (SumAll and Whole Foods are two exmaples,) as well as websites like GlassDoor and Payscale, which make self-reported salary information available to the public.

Federal data show that across the board, women still earn 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. Even when controlling for factors like experience and industry, women still earn less than men, and that holds true from janitors to CEOs. The situation is even more imbalanced for women of color.

In the public sector and in union jobs, where pay is published for everyone to see, the pay gap is lower — 89 cents and 91 cents respectively, Weingarten points out in her piece.

Lily Ledbetter, who worked as a supervisor at an Alabama Goodyear plant, earned less than male managers who worked alongside her for decades — until, finally, someone left her an anonymous note revealing what was going on. She sued, taking her case all the way to the Supreme Court. And despite the fact that she lost, her case inspired a federal law making it easier for workers to sue employers for pay discrimination.

Maybe it’s a sad testament that this major and long-standing issue is only now making it into the realm of public conversation since beautiful Hollywood actors have called attention to it. Documents leaked from last year’s Sony hack showed that Jennifer Lawrence was paid less for her work in the movie “American Hustle” than male co-stars, or “the lucky people with dicks,” as she phrased it in a recent essay. The documents are showed a pay gap between male and female Sony executives.

Knowledge may be power, but publicly discussing how much you make doesn’t come easy. Explaining that she’s lucky and content with her pay — which is obviously millions more than most people make — Winslet said, “it seems quite a strange thing to be discussing out in the open like that.”

But as Jennifer Lawrence showed, public figures like Winslet can have the most helpful impact if they set embarrassment aside and talk frankly about pay fairness.

And remember that telling coworkers how much you earn is not illegal. In fact, salary talk between colleagues is protected by a depression-era labor law. So, if you suspect that you’re not getting paid what you’re worth (and if you’re a women, a person of color or a worker with a disability, your hunch is probably correct), it’s in your best interests to start asking around.

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Emery Reddy