“So, how much do you make?”
For decades, this was a deeply personal and uncomfortable question no one wanted to answer. But pay transparency is becoming more mainstream today. Already seven states require employers to disclose salary ranges during the hiring process.
And more workers are taking matters into their own hands, too. On social media, people are openly sharing what they do for work and how much money they make. The goal is to empower others to seek higher pay and to address pay inequity, which disproportionately affects women and minorities.
One of the leading voices in this movement is Hannah Williams, a 26-year-old content creator from Alexandria, Va. who in April 2022 launched Salary Transparent Street, a viral TikTok series in which she asks strangers across the country how much money they make. Her videos have reached tens of millions of people with short, lively interviews that feature teachers, nurses, data analysts, and government workers, all revealing their pay. Recent videos highlighted an event planner making $80,000 per year; an interpreter making $43,000; a college statistics professor making $70,000; a software engineer making $191,000; a nurse anesthetist making $280,000; and a water vendor outside the White House who reported making $3,000–$4,000 per week.
But people aren’t always happy with what they’re learning.
“There’s a lot of anger about whether or not people deserve to make how much they make and that it should be more well-distributed,” Williams tells TIME. “I see a lot of comments asking why are we paying teachers $40-$50k but software engineers $600k and CEOs even more.”
The salary gaps are also noticeable among women and people of color—another source of frustration among viewers, Williams says. A new Pew Research Center survey, published March 1, found that women earned an average of 82% of what men earned, similar to where the pay gap stood in 2002.
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In less than a year since launching Salary Transparent Street, Williams has amassed around 2 million social media followers and is about to hit $1 million in revenue thanks to brand deals and partnerships with companies like Indeed, the job-search platform. The success of her brand has led other social media users to share their own stories about compensation and pay; thousands of people on Reddit have posted what they make in recent months.
Some examples from the Reddit threads include: A 23-year-old apprentice at a utility company who made $135,000 including overtime in Washington, D.C. last year; a public school teacher with 18 years of experience making $87,000 in Portland, Ore.; a 35-year-old social media professional making $65,000 in Oklahoma City; a commercial lender at a bank making $255,000 with 10 years of experience in Chicago; and a 47-year-old software development manager making $188,000 in Charlotte, N.C.
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“Now we know who’s buying all those multi-million dollar houses,” one user posted in response to some of the six-figure salaries. “Props to them for finding that kind of work I guess, but that kind of income as ‘normal’ just strikes me as obscene. No wonder we have such inequality and crazy high [cost of living] in the US.”
“Only the high paying ones want to post, remember that,” another user commented.
How to use pay transparency to get a raise
Open discussion of salaries among peers—or even strangers—is a powerful tool to fight pay inequity, Williams says. Not only does it serve an altruistic purpose, but it puts workers in the same profession in a better position during salary negotiations. It can also help us understand how regular American workers view the state of the economy.
“We hear a lot of conversations about cost of living,” Williams says. “I make a point to ask people about the cost of living on their salary. Do you feel fairly compensated? Are you able to make ends meet or do you live paycheck-to-paycheck? There’s a good amount of people who tell us that they do live paycheck-to-paycheck.”
Williams, who quit her day job as a data analyst making $115,000 to become a full-time content creator, says many people share stories about struggling to pay off student loans or being unable to find a job in the field they have a degree in.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of teachers leaving the workforce to go do other things because teaching just doesn’t pay the bills,” she says. “That’s a really sad trend; the people who should be some of the highest compensated in our society, like teachers and social workers, who really impact our societies and guide them in the right direction, are sometimes the worst paid.”
With demand for workers increasing and the pandemic shifting work culture, workers and some state and local lawmakers have begun to dismantle some of the forces that discourage open salary discussion. Roughly two dozen states, including California, New York and Massachusetts, have banned employers from asking job candidates for a salary history, which tilts some leveraging power back to candidates. And in some industries, unionization has become a powerful tool in fighting for higher wages.
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But having these conversations is much easier said than done. Still, there are ways to gain confidence in discussing your salary. Williams suggests workers first do market research to see what others in the same job title are making and also consider the cost of living in the area. Then, they shouldn’t be afraid to leverage that information to employers.
“My goal is to bring awareness to people that they can do market research and understand how salaries are determined,” Williams says. “Once that pressure starts building, corporate America is going to have no choice but to make changes. Once you talk about your salary, you can really see what those discrepancies are and call out the fact that sometimes salaries are just determined based on what a recruiter thinks you should earn instead of what the structure in the market research should be compensating them.”
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