Will Salary Transparency Laws Close Race and Gender Pay Gaps?

(Glow Images/Getty Images)

When Tauhid Chappell accepted his first job as a social media producer at a Phoenix station, he had no idea if $32,000 was fair compensation for managing three digital platforms.

In 2012, it wasn’t so easy to figure out what other producers were making. Sites like Glassdoor and Twitter, still in their infancy, hadn’t yet become vehicles for salary sharing and conversations about equity. Chappell didn’t realize how much value he’d brought to his job until he left and was replaced by four employees. Had he known another company was hiring for more than $40,000, he said, he would have applied in a heartbeat, or at least mentioned it during salary negotiations. 

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“Looking at how instrumental social media is now,” Chappell said, “I would have asked for more for sure.”

Last year, he joined some other journalists of color in tweeting their salaries at various companies, including The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Salary transparency, he said, is a rebuke of the “pay your dues and pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that has permeated the media for generations.

“We work for an industry that’s all about watchdog transparency, but we ourselves don’t serve as a model for transparency,” said Chappell, who is also on the board of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. “How do we expect other industries to act on behalf of workers when we’re not doing the same?”

Pay transparency has long been considered a solution to reducing gender and racial wage gaps across industries: Last year, women earned 17% less than men and Black women earned roughly 88% of the median wages of white women, according to the Department of Labor.

For years, social media has been an instrumental tool in facilitating conversations about pay equity, providing journalists a platform to share and compare what they’ve earned. Then, amid a pandemic-fueled resurgence of labor organizing, more than a dozen cities and states passed legislation requiring businesses to be transparent about their pay ranges in job postings, including the media hub of New York City. Roughly 1 in 4 workers will be covered by a state or local salary transparency law this year.

Only time will tell if these laws will make a difference in pay disparities, as companies are already finding workarounds. But some journalists remain hopeful, heartened by the transparency conversations that continue online.

The loopholes in pay transparency laws

While social media chatter is effective in helping workers gauge their monetary value, it doesn’t provide much armor in salary discussions during interviews. Some journalists say pay transparency laws, which compel companies to share hard numbers, give them the confidence to apply for positions and negotiate higher salaries. 

Lam Thuy Vo, a data journalist in residence at CUNY graduate school of journalism, said pay transparency laws can empower underpaid journalists of color to negotiate salaries that are comparable with that of their white colleagues. Years ago, Vo turned down a position at a media company that later hired a white journalist — a former colleague who she said had a similar resume — for $40,000 more than what it had offered her. Without any transparency, she said, it’s difficult to know if the employer was underpaying her or overpaying him, if the employer felt he brought more value to the team or if the company was desperate to find a replacement after she declined an offer. 

“We’re in an industry where there aren’t many tangible ways of measuring our impact,” she said. “Having a number, a clear range, would have been really helpful for me to go back to the table and say, ‘I didn’t take the job in part because I didn’t want this salary.’”

However, instituting a law rarely equates to a problem completely solved. Companies are already finding loopholes to skirt listing concrete numbers. After the New York City law went into effect in November, one publication listed an opening for executive producer of news podcasts with a salary range of $50,000 to $180,000; another posted a sports digital reporter role for $15 per hour to $125,000 a year.

There’s also been an interesting side effect of these laws: Employees are now seeing how they are underpaid and are pushing back against their employers.

Kimberly Nguyen, a contract UX writer, said that thanks to the city’s salary-sharing requirement, she found out her company was hiring a second UX writer for $32,000 to $90,000 more than it currently pays her. In a now-viral tweet, she shared that she had been pushing her managers since December to give her a raise, but was told there was little they could do in a “tough labor market.”

“I was upset to see a salary so far above mine,” Nguyen said. “I didn’t feel valued.”

The point of transparency, advocates say, is for no one to be underpaid. An interesting follow-up study on the effectiveness of these laws could be a look into whether reporters in affected cities got paid within, less or more than the salary ranges listed on the ads, Vo said. 

So far, what little data there is about the impact of pay transparency laws isn’t glowing. Colorado was one of the first states to enact such a law, in January 2021. It didn’t take long for businesses to find ways to avoid it. The law triggered a rise in job seekers and a drop in job listings, according to a study conducted last July by the labor research firm Recruitonomics. Sam Kuhn, a Recrutionomics economic data analyst who authored the study, said the decline in job ads was particularly noticeable within Colorado’s professional business sector, which includes media and software engineering roles.   

To bypass the state’s salary-posting requirement, some out-of-state companies barred Colorado residents from applying for remote positions, diminishing their employment prospects rather than boosting their earnings. (There has not yet been any studies looking at the law’s impact on reducing gender and racial wage gaps.)

Jayo Miko Macasaquit, chief people officer of the nonprofit outlet The 19th, said pay transparency is arguably the most pressing issue that industry leaders are aware they should focus on because a law could be coming to their state next.

Because pay transparency isn’t baked into the media business model, he said, newsrooms have to create new structures for determining equitable salaries, weighing subjective and complex variables like life experience or cost of living for remote positions. It’s still a trial-and-error process, he said, because the industry hasn’t yet established many best practices. (The 19th, which is based in Austin, Texas, posts salary minimums instead of ranges on ads.)

“A better way hasn’t been created yet,” Macasaquit said. “But if we agree that salaries have been inequitable in the past, then we have to expect to pay more to fix that.”

Social media is still a more helpful tool for some

Some reporters say they hope laws will eventually cover all members of the media industry, including freelance writers and publicists. 

Lola Méndez, a freelance Uruguayan American travel journalist, said editors often use vague language like “competitive pay” and “industry standard rate” in commissions — terms that, in her experience, mostly amounted to less than $200 per feature. Like full-time reporters, Méndez and other freelancers often share and discuss rates on social media. A few databases have been holding media companies accountable: “Who Pays Writers” crowdsources the rates at which different publications pay their freelancers and “Writers of Color” pressures them to share their commission rates on Twitter.

“Especially female, queer, and BIPOC writers — we’re told we should be grateful for any work we get,” she said. “We often sell our trauma stories for less than $200 because we’re meant to be glad that anyone cares about our personal narratives.” 

Getting some transparency via social media has empowered Méndez to make bold career decisions. In 2021, she turned down several full-time New York City-based travel editor roles when she learned, ahead of the final round of interviews, that her annual salary would be around $85,000, while the average cost of living can exceed $5,000 a month. She said she felt validated when freelancer Victoria Walker shared in a viral tweet that she made $107,000 a year as a senior travel reporter at a different company.

“I wouldn’t take a full-time role for less than six figures,” Méndez said, “and probably well over $100,000 to justify the lifestyle sacrifices I’d be making.”

For now, Méndez said she is content churning out freelance content from a coastal city in Latin America, where the cost of living is a fraction of New York’s. Knowing how much the city’s travel editor roles are going for, she said, informed her decision to stay abroad and work for herself.

“Journalists must know their worth,” she said, “because at the end of the day, a publication can’t last without us.”