It was once called "the last taboo."
But a spreadsheet circulating this week with the salary information for workers in one industry -- news media -- has shown how the issue of pay equity has moved into the center of the national discussion about work and fairness.
The "Real Media Salaries" spreadsheet, which anyone could self-report to, grew quickly after it began circulating Tuesday. It asked people to report their title, company, experience in years, race, gender, job location, duties and previous employment data, in addition to compensation details.
By early Thursday morning, it had nearly 900 salaries listed, for positions purportedly at major national media organizations including The Washington Post, New York Times, National Geographic, NPR and CNN; digital outfits including G/O Media (formerly the Gizmodo Media Group), BuzzFeed and Quartz; and regional and local outlets such as the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Arizona Republic and the York Dispatch in Pennsylvania.
"Talking about how much or how little money you make feels taboo, and it shouldn't," the spreadsheet said. "Wouldn't it be great to know what your peers make so you can use that to leverage a raise? ... Let's share what we make and any relevant info to help each other learn our worth!"
The information on the sheet has not been verified, and those that posted to the database were not screened. And at least one editor, Jessica Lessin, the founder of technology website the Information, said on Twitter that the salary information listed for her company was inaccurate.
The spreadsheet is part of a small but significant movement toward more pay transparency in workplaces, most of it driven by employees. At most companies, employer practices and long-standing social norms have helped ensure that salary numbers are treated like secrets.
But questions about how pay disparities split along racial and gender lines have helped make the push for pay transparency more urgent and softened some of these long-standing taboos.
Sarah Kobos, 29, the creator of the spreadsheet, said she and her co-workers at The Wirecutter, a New York Times-owned product review site where employees recently formed a union -- had been openly sharing information about their salaries for months.
After Kobos saw a post on Glassdoor, a database that allows people to anonymously post salaries and other information about their workplaces, that showed someone with a similar title at her company making significantly more than she does, she began to see the benefit of having more information about salaries industrywide.
"I started thinking, what is an industry-standard salary, when I thought mine was?" she said in a phone interview. "So I thought it would helpful to have a resource like this, so people who make more could help those who make less."
She said that, in particular, younger employees, who have little experience negotiating salaries, could be assisted by having more information about pay.
"The point of this isn't collective whining, it's collective bargaining," she said. "I think this is helpful for people starting out in the field, when you don't know what you should make, and you're excited to do what you love, so you take what you get offered without really knowing what's fair."
It is illegal for employers to retaliate against their workers for discussing wages with their colleagues under provisions in National Labor Relations Act of 1935, but penalties for rule-breakers are weak.
And many companies have found ways to promote the culture of secrecy around pay, whether through explicit and potentially illegal guidelines or not.
A survey of private companies in 2001 found that more than a third had policies prohibiting workers from sharing information about their compensation with their peers. In 2010, about 50 percent of workers said they were either contractually forbidden or strongly discouraged from discussing pay with colleagues, according to a 2010 Institute for Women's Policy Research/Rockefeller Survey of Economic Security study.
As the Department of Labor notes, pay secrecy perpetuates existing disparities in compensation that affect women and people of color. Studies have shown that women nationally earn about 82 percent of what men make; while black and Latino men earn 73 percent and 69 percent of what white men make, respectively. Black and Latino women make 65 and 58 percent of what white men make, respectively.
But specific data about how pay disparities play out inside industries and companies is harder to come by.
Cynthia Estlund, a New York University scholar of labor and employment law, said that although transparency is one of the best tools to combat discriminatory pay practices, it can also cause other workplace issues.
"The literature shows it tends to compress salaries and reduce disparities," she said. "It may reduce both unjustified disparities and justified disparities. Disparities that exist between people who think they are in the same category is going to cause friction."
Ricardo Perez-Truglia, an economics professor at UCLA who has studied pay transparency for years, found that at a societal level, the practice can widen the gap in perceived well-being between richer and poorer workers.
"If they learn that they are poorer than they thought, it can lower their self-esteem. If their social contacts learn how poor they are, it can reduce their social-esteem, he wrote in a 2015 study. "In contrast, richer individuals often benefit from this game."
A study of 6,400 University of California employees and professors in 2012 found that workers who learned about their peers' salaries were more likely to believe their wages were unfair and more likely to say they were looking for another job.
Other researchers have come to opposite conclusions, like Edward Lawler III, a business professor at the University of Southern California who has been studying the issue since the early 1960s. Lawler said he has long recommended transparent-pay policies to companies, saying that he had done studies that showed that people's perception of how their salaries compared to their peers' was worse than it actually was.
"They overestimated what people made around them -- they felt unfairly treated or paid poorly when it wasn't true," Lawler said.
Although the data in the Real Media Salaries list was not comprehensive, some were quick to point to disparities that jumped out between employees with similar titles, both within workplaces and between them. Others pointed out how low some media salaries were outside of big cities like Washington and New York.
One New York-based reporter, a person of color who is in his 20s and posted his salary on the sheet, said that although he was used to talking about salary information with his co-workers, the spreadsheet offered a level of specificity that casual conversations couldn't. He said he had been frustrated to learn recently that a job he had been in discussions for was offered to a woman -- for $10,000 less.
"It's important to know what peers and colleagues are making, so people know what they could be making," he told The Post.
Perez-Truglia said that even though there has been more discussion about pay transparency -- and some high-profile attempts by workers who have organized at companies like Google to address it -- the taboos around pay secrecy are very much intact. A study he co-authored in 2018 found that 68 percent of employees said that it was socially unacceptable to ask co-workers about their salaries. About 38 percent said they would be unwilling to share their salary with their peers even if offered $125 to do so.
But he said there is still a feeling that the tide may be turning as a new generation of workers steps up to the plate.
"Millennials are so willing to share information and everything online that perhaps that they don't mind sharing this info," he said. "If they're already posting on Instagram the vacations they're taking, the car they drive, the breakfast they're having, someone following them can sort of figure out how much they make."