The social taboo of discussing salaries: Should salaries be disclosed?

Women’s studies professor, librarian, and trans rights advocate agree that employers should be more transparent about salary

Why salaries should be discussed. Graphic Maria Chabelnik

Professor Chantal Maillé, who has taught women’s studies at Concordia since 1989, explained that unequal pay between men and women only became illegal in 1976 thanks to the work of feminists who uncovered the truth behind gender wage gaps. These feminists, more radical than their predecessors, were more successful in gaining equal rights with men.

They were; however, largely composed of cisgender white, middle-class, highly educated women. Disparities between classes and ethnicities are still ongoing today, as well as disparities between cisgender and transgender people.

“Today, it is clear that there are still gaps in salaries, but these gaps are not only based on gender. They are even more complex,” said Maillé. “If you are using an intersectional lens, you know that you have to look beyond gender categories because they only give averages.”

“Clearly, what these companies are doing is that they’re making sure that employees—by not discussing their salaries—do not become aware that there might be gaps, or that there might be discrimination,” said Maillé.

To illustrate her point, the professor summarized a study conducted by women journalists for Radio-Canada in 2004. In this study, they discovered the highest salary attributed to women in Radio-Canada was equal to the lowest salary attributed to men working in the same field.

This discrepancy was partly due to how the journalists’ salaries were based on notoriety, Maillé explained.

“Part of the salary was negotiated between the employee and the employer, and when you have these kinds of informal negotiations, gaps are introduced,” she said.

In Ontario, the Sunshine list, which is available to the public, is a document that reports the salaries of government employees who earn over $100,000 yearly.

“This is the kind of exercise that can only be beneficial to all. I think when people are not allowed to disclose their salaries, it introduces biases and inequalities,” said Maillé.

If someone finds out a coworker is being paid more than they are, they will question their situation. But if they are kept in the dark, they are powerless, she continued.

Isabelle Lamoureux, the librarian at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute’s library, reiterated the importance of transparency surrounding salary.

“I’m also a tutor, and in some companies, they even have you sign documents that do not allow you to share your salary with other employees,” Lamoureux said.

She explained how her fellow colleagues believed it was strange that they weren’t allowed to discuss their salaries. It did not take them long to find out that some people were making more than others, and their employers were purposefully hiding this from them.

“I think all salaries should be disclosed because when there are rules, you have to apply them,” Lamoureux said. “There are no rules when you don’t need to divulge anyone’s salary, which allows your boss to do whatever [they] want.”

“When people are not allowed to disclose their salaries, it introduces biases and inequalities.” — Chantal Maillé

Maillé also spoke about how People of Colour, emphasizing Indigenous people, are underrepresented in universities. This leads to biases being made against them, which result in lower salaries, less promotions, and less opportunities for affected minorities.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers releases annual reports comparing salaries between universities and between different social identities. Every year, Maillé said, they find inequalities.

“But at least now, we have the tools to document these biases and to find strategies to overcome them,’ said Maillé.

Celeste Trianon, the Trans Rights Advocate for the Centre for Gender Advocacy, spoke about how the wage gap affects trans and non-binary people in Canada.

"Oftentimes, people think of the wage gap as something that is limited to women being paid less than men, or POC being paid less than white persons,” said Trianon. “However, this fails to account for the sheer income disparity between trans* persons and cis persons.”

Trianon explained that for every dollar that a white cisgender man makes, a trans* person will earn, on average, 53 cents. This is partly due to unemployment rates being twice as high among transgender* folks than they are among cisgender folks, they said.

“There is clearly still a large amount of ‘under-the-carpet’ transphobia going on, despite it having been outlawed in Canada by bill C-16 and in Quebec by bill 103,” said Trianon. “Making sure that employers and corporations are held accountable for causing trans* unemployment, underemployment and wage discrimination is the first of many steps that must be taken.”

*The notation “trans*” is to include non-binary people within the trans* umbrella.

This article originally appeared in The Money Issue, published November 2, 2021.