Daniel D. Beck

Pay the Docs: pay transparency at Write the Docs Portland

About a year and a half ago, I left a job that I was in for a long time. I thought I was being paid reasonably, until I began my job search and took a position that paid 80% more. In retrospect, I was being paid too little. It made think more about compensation. In a world where pay secrecy is the norm, how do workers know if they’re being paid fairly?

This year, the United Kingdom compelled companies with more than 250 employees to publish their gender pay gap. For the first time, workers in the UK have public data about their employers’ ability—or, more likely, inability—to pay men and women equally. But the published data only discloses the pay gap in relative terms. It’s missing the most useful information: how much workers are paid.

I was aware of movements for pay transparency, like Lauren Voswinkel’s #talkpay, but I wanted to talk to others who do similar work as me about pay secrecy and what we can do about it. In May, I realized I would have my chance at the 2018 edition of Write the Docs Portland, a conference for “documentarians” (technical writers, software developers, and others who care about documentation). While at the conference, I proposed and moderated a half-hour discussion about pay transparency.

To kick off the discussion, I spoke for a bit about what pay transparency is: the idea that workers ought to be able to freely discuss their compensation with their colleagues, managers, and professional peers in other organizations. In contrast, the status quo is pay secrecy. Pay secrecy comes from the taboo against talking about compensation and sometimes from policies that actively prohibit workers from talking about what they earn.

I also talked about the harms of pay secrecy. Pay secrecy is good for people who pay for labor, not the people who do it. Pay secrecy reinforces sexism, racism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination. What’s more, pay secrecy feels like an intractable problem: it’s hard to talk to others about compensation when there’s social pressure not to and harder still under management threats.

Then I turned the discussion over to the group. What can we do about it?

What we learned

The discussion that followed was eye-opening. The dozen or so participants each shared how pay secrecy and pay transparency had impacted them:

The discussion returned to a few points. As expected, employers and hiring managers hold most of the power when it comes to transparency and fairness in pay. The group had these recommendations for employers:

The group also had recommendations for workers:

Also check out Erin Grace’s live tweeting of the session. Erin took notes on a few things that I missed.

Pay the Docs

The entire group agreed that this should be the beginning of a discussion in the Write the Docs community, not the end of one. One idea that was especially popular was starting a spreadsheet for documentarians to talk about pay, even anonymously. An attendee even gave the idea a name: Pay the Docs.

To make that a reality, I’d like your help. Apart from salary and location, what information would be helpful to you in understanding other documentarians’ pay? What makes up your compensation? Salary? Bonus? Stock? What else? What would you need to feel comfortable sharing your compensation details?

If you’ve got something to say on this topic, please tweet about it on the #writethedocs hashtag or, if you’d like to talk privately, get in touch.

Note: given the sensitivity of the topic, I treated the discussion at Write the Docs as if it were under the Chatham House Rule. I did not attribute what I learned to any specific person or company. If you participated in this conversation and would like to be attributed in this post, please let me know.