How can women achieve equal pay if we don’t talk about what we earn in the first place?

Two friends were taking new jobs, in different cities, different industries, with different skill sets. And both women told me, unprompted, exactly what they were going to be paid.

I was silent. I was shocked. I waited for the skies to open and lightning to strike, but it did not. I grew up believing it was uncouth to discuss money, whether that is parents’ income, a family’s worth, and certainly not a new job’s pay.

So how can we achieve equal pay if we don’t talk about what we earn in the first place? That’s something we need to more aggressively address, beginning with young children and continuing in our social circles across our career arcs. After all, we all know what women’s pay looks like – think about how casually we can assess people through their material possessions or pursuits. We just need to learn to talk out loud about our work, our pay, and our worth.

Meanwhile, these days, many women I know are enlisting into the Acela corridor army of consultants. More of us are out there on our own, “having our own shops.” Among this group, the challenge to talk about what we are paid may be greatest. How much should I charge? How much does she charge? And, wait, that guy charges that? I’d show up early to every meeting if there was a safe space for similarly-employed women to talk money.

Then there’s the riddle of being asked to work for no pay. This is the underground economy of lopsided favors. I’m not talking about the sisterly things women should do to excel, like have the networking lunch, friendly phone call, or connecting one colleague to another. I’m talking about, you know, work. I could detail out the myriad things I have been asked to do, with no expectation of payment, but it’s a very long list. And I know I’m not alone.

It wasn’t until somewhat recently that I’ve learned to temper my “Midwestern nice” self and not readily agree to work for free. But I also believe there are judgment calls to make, because sometimes “doing X for free means Y and Z good things will happen as a result.” Startlingly, this proved to be controversial in a conference panel I recently participated in. “You’re wrong, you should always ask for money,” someone argued, “Always.” But I disagree. Sometime the pursuit of equal pay may mean no pay. And I believe that’s for a smart and savvy woman to decide on her own. What’s even better is if she has a sisterhood to call upon, where talking money out loud isn’t scary but safe.