America’s biggest secret or Life in a culture of pay secrecy?

Life

by Lata Murti

My eight-year-old daughter received the classic Hasbro Game of Life as a holiday gift this past year.  What caught my attention right away while playing the game with her were the salaries.

All the “College Careers” – those requiring a college degree – started at $80,000 each payday, with teachers making a whopping $100,000 each payday!  I saw on the box that kids chose the careers for this latest version of the game, and I began to wonder if they chose the salaries too.  That might explain the inflated salaries.

After all, in a culture and society that often asks kids to imagine what they want to be when they grow up but seldom how much they want to make, how would a kid determine the salaries of common careers?

For that matter, how does an adult determine the salaries of common careers?  Pay secrecy – or a taboo against revealing one’s salary – is the norm in both US institutions of employment and US society at large.

Indeed, although U.S. employers cannot legally prohibit employees from discussing their pay, many employers implement a formal or informal policy against employees discussing their salaries.  Such policies help employers maintain complete control over wages, thus preventing employee demands for higher pay and wage equality, according to a 2015 study by Jake Rosenfeld and Patrick Denice, two of the few sociologists to study pay secrecy.

In other words, pay secrecy is essential to capitalism, which, at its core, is about unequal wages.

It’s no wonder then that for years, I had only the Game of Life as a reference for the average salaries of common careers – the 1980s version of the game, in which doctors and lawyers made a mere $50,000 a year.  To this day, when I hear about any salary over $50,000, my initial thought is, “Wow!  That’s high!”  Such is the influence of a children’s board game in a culture of pay secrecy.

But a culture of pay secrecy is not the global norm.  Scholars, journalists, bloggers, and online discussion boards all suggest that in the more collectivist and socialist societies of Asia and Europe, pay transparency is common, with companies often sharing salary information and citizens asking about, and revealing, their pay.

Indeed, my relatives in India don’t hesitate to let us know how much they and members of their family make.  For them, announcing one’s salary is hardly different than announcing one’s occupation.  It’s a basic, identifying characteristic, defining their class status in a culture where privacy is a luxury, and neither poverty nor wealth is hidden.

Should the U.S. move in a similar direction?  Yes, according to many, who argue that pay secrecy perpetuates the wage gap between U.S. women and men, and impedes the bargaining power of employee unions.  And now may be the perfect time to start adopting a culture of pay transparency, as sharing-inclined Millennials become full-time members of the U.S. workforce and a woman dedicated to closing the wage gap runs for President.

But in an individualistic, capitalist society that values privacy, I think a culture of pay transparency is a long way off.  Indeed, the recent Massachusetts law prohibiting employers from asking applicants about their previous salary—although intended to close the wage gap for women and minorities—serves to reinforce the U.S. culture of pay secrecy.

Even if companies begin closing the wage gap, it’s hard to imagine a United States where “How much do you make?” is asked and answered as casually as “What do you do for work?”

Until this happens, however, the Game of Life may continue to be the principal cultural index for average salaries, for both children and adults alike.

Lata Murti is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brandman University, part of the Chapman University System.

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