There are plenty of topics women are told not to discuss publicly. Sex, politics, really anything that shows we have an opinion at all — we live in a society that’s all too eager to have women be seen and not heard. But even as women continue to gain more power in positions of leadership, one topic of conversation persists in being seen as off-limits: money.
In recent years, two women in particular have shown dedication to breaking that rule, and encouraging women to do so as well. This April, bestselling author of Luckiest Girl Alive Jessica Knoll made waves with an op-ed in The New York Times, which unapologetically told readers, “I Want To Be Rich and I’m Not Sorry.” In it, she wrote, “Success, for me, is synonymous with making money. I want to write books, but I really want to sell books. I want advances that make my husband gasp and fat royalty checks twice a year. I want movie studios to pay me for option rights and I want the screenwriting comp to boot.” As she writes, Knoll also wants gender parity when it comes to money and success, as does Lauren McGoodwin, Founder and CEO of the Career Contessa, who launched The Salary Project, aimed at helping women obtain salary transparency.
In a conversation as two of Bustle's 2018 Rule Breakers, Knoll and McGoodwin discuss transparency, making decisions out of fear, and why right now is the best time for women to speak up once and for all.
Jessica Knoll: What inspired you to start The Salary Project?
Lauren McGoodwin: I launched Career Contessa in 2013. I had been a recruiter before that, so when I first launched, I was really focused on giving job search advice. But as we were interviewing real women about what their careers were and how they got there, money was sort of in the picture, but it wasn't front and center like it is now. And so one day we had this idea: What if we just ask people how much money they make and we have them give us [the answer] anonymously through a Google Doc? Within an hour, we had 1,000 submissions. It eventually became so popular that I really felt like we needed to turn it into a database that would update in real-time. We have now over 10,000 responses. It's been an incredible tool. We’ve heard from real women who have said this tool [has helped them] negotiate a raise and a promotion. That’s just really powerful.
Speaking of money, I'm kind of curious: When did it occur to you that you could make money as a writer? Because I'm sure you were told at college, Don't become a writer. No one makes money in that anymore?
JK: I didn't even know how I could write and make money. I went to my career counselor junior and senior year and expressed that I was interested in writing. I was a talented writer. I had a writing scholarship to college, [and] had won writing awards. The college counselor directed me toward advertising. So I really felt lost. I ended up getting a job at [a screenwriting] agency right after I graduated, and it was apparent within weeks that this was not what I was meant to do. But I started reading Gawker and all these different websites that I'd never read before. And I was like, oh there's a whole media world in New York. So I ended up getting a job in magazines at Cosmopolitan as an editorial assistant, just through kind of being very dogged and just figuring it out of my own. But I always look back at those early meetings with the career counselor and think how ill-prepared I was to enter the workforce. And so the idea that there could be something like The Career Contessa that you could access while you're still in college and is dedicated not just to helping you find a job, [but also to] helping you find a job that you're passionate about — that's a resource I would have killed to have.
LM: I was the Career Contessa's poster child. I graduated with no job and no idea what I want to do.
JK: Once I was at Cosmo — that was again a corporate job. It had regular hours, it had all of those things in place that I needed to feel secure. And from there, I really started to realize that there was still a cap on the type of success I could have in that world, and the money I could make in that world. And that was when I started talking to other magazine editors who had separate writing careers who had written books. And they would say things like, “My advance paid for my vacation home,” and ... so I think that started getting the wheels turning a little bit there. And all of that comes with financial success. So, my question to you is, is financial success and not just stability something that you always wanted and saw for yourself?
LM: I remember from a young age wanting to get a job — so I could make my own money, so that I could make my [own] decisions. I started working at Old Navy as early as I was allowed to; I think I was 15. I basically have had a job since then. And certainly financial stability and having money tucked away for a rainy day, yeah, that's always been a priority to me. What you realize is that finding a job is just one piece of the pie, and all the other pieces are, OK, now you're making your own money, how can you be really smart about it? How can you invest it so that it makes more money for you? How can you negotiate that raise? What [is] the market value for your skill set? How can you learn new skills that will help you make more money? Maybe that means going back to school and getting an advanced degree, and maybe that means learning how to code or something. And so I think it wasn't even just financial stability. It was always important to me that I could transition my career or move around.
What inspired you to write your op-ed?
JK: My second book was coming out, and [The Favorite Sister] is about a group of women who were very dedicated to creating their own wealth, their own independence, their own paths in life [that are] not just corporate, safe, nine-to-five jobs. There was also a lot in conversation happening at the time about women's inhibition. Reese Witherspoon had [given a speech at Glamour’s 2015 Women Of The Year Awards] called “Ambition Is Not a Dirty Word.” And then Ellen Pompeo was interviewed in The Hollywood Reporter about what it took to become the highest-paid woman on [a primetime drama]. And she really just let it rip about how she was really underestimated and undervalued for a really long time. But [Reese] said something in a  interview [with WSJ Magazine] that her dream to be an actress was never so big that she was going to be willing to live out of her car. The starving artist life wasn't for her. And I was like, Whoa, that is exactly how I have always felt. I would never sacrifice financial success for a dream. I would always find a way to do something that I loved and that I felt passionate about, but a component of that [is] being financially successful. I love that more and more women are standing up and being transparent. That's your word — I love that word, and it can only bring good things for women.
LM: Yeah, and I think it's [being] transparent not just about how much money you make, it's [being] transparent about what you want. The topic of money has always been weird for people, for sure. You don't talk about money — it [is seen] as taboo.
JK: And that now goes into the next question very seamlessly. From an HR perspective, it is kind of a nightmare for everyone to know each other’s salaries. [Have you ever] received any pushback, publicly or privately, about The Salary Project?
What I'm referring to when I talk about salary transparency is for employers to be transparent about how they came up with that number [for employees]. - Lauren McGoodwin
LM: Well, what's really interesting is that I think it first starts with re-defining what the term “salary transparency” means. What I'm referring to when I talk about salary transparency is for employers to be transparent about how they came up with that number [for employees]. So often times, when you get a job offer, you're told this job pays $60,000 and you just accept it as a truce. You never say, “But what [is] the base pay for the salary and then how did you include my experience, my skill set, where we live, the tenure, whatever my advanced degree [is]?” Salary transparency really starts with employers having an honest conversation about where they came up with that number and then how you can get more of it. I am not pro [employers], like, printing everybody's salary off on an Excel sheet and putting it on the fridge.
I would literally not work with a man at this point in my career because I just don't think that they understand my mindset and the way I need to push against that mindset of not wanting to be a burden or asking too much. - Jessica Knoll
JK: So much of what a publisher will pay you as an advance, especially as a debut author, is kind of arbitrary. Sometimes people don't get great advances and the book blows up and you make all your money in royalties. Sometimes you write a book, the publishers freak out for it, there's a bidding war, you get a high-six-figure or seven-figure advance. So there's really no way to like measure against another debut author. As a new screenwriter, I will say it's been a little bit sobering. The actual figure, the actual writing fee, there's a stark contrast between that and [my] book advance. And you kind of feel like saying, “Do you know what I got paid for my book and this is what you're offering me?” Sometimes I do wonder about our male authors who decide to adapt their work — what was their first screenwriting paycheck like? I will say that something that I've gotten really bold about doing is asking for money when there is a certain round of edits that are required that haven't [been compensated for]. And in the beginning, I was just happy to do it and my agent, who's this kick-ass woman, was like, “No, we're asking for money for this.” I'm like, oh yeah, women do too much work for free, I forgot about that. Other male agents have tried to poach me at other agencies. [But] I would literally not work with a man at this point in my career because I just don't think that they understand my mindset and the way I need to push against that mindset of not wanting to be a burden or asking too much.
LM: Yeah, that's why we want a career site for women. Are women really that different than men? It’s, like, yes.
JK: Right, right, and even like this made me laugh the other day — someone who was interested in working with me, a man, his sell to me was that his wife had read my book. My agent pointed out like, if I was trying to sign a male client, do you think I would say to him, “My husband read your book?” Hell no, I would say, “I read your book and I loved it.” It’s just that subtle sexism that we face every single day that sometimes I don't even pick up on. I'm so curious about this because this is a conversation [I should be having] with my friends, which is: what your friends make. What's the best way to handle it when [you realize] that there are salary discrepancies that might make people self-critical?
LM: I'm sort of in a unique position because I run a career site and everybody tells me how much [they make]. It's like I feel like I'm that weird therapist where everyone's like, “So I have a career question,” and normally they would keep most of the details [to] themselves. But for the average person, here's the thing: Women talking about things is really therapeutic. And so if you're getting ready to ask for a raise or you're going to negotiate your offer for the first time on a brand-new job, it is helpful to share what you make or talk to your friends about money. As long as it's done I think in like a healthy way. Women are prone to fall into the trap of comparison and feeling bad about [themselves] and so I think—
JK: Yeah, compare and despair.
LM: Exactly. So I think that would be important, to make sure you're mentally ready to have those conversations so that when you find out that your sister-in-law makes $180,000 and you make $80,000, that [you] then don't go through a weird cycle of self-hatred. One of the other things I feel really strongly about is that people — especially women — need to understand that their self-worth does not equal their net worth.
I'm kind of curious, has your financial success [made] you feel powerful? I definitely think of money when I think of power.
I do feel very powerful and it's a great feeling, especially when I compare where I was at even just a couple of years ago. I didn't feel powerful. I felt fraudulent. - Jessica Knoll
JK: I do feel very powerful and it's a great feeling, especially when I compare where I was at even just a couple of years ago. I didn't feel powerful. I felt fraudulent. I felt that on the surface I could appear as someone who was accomplished, and I was accomplished. But I wasn't living by my own terms. I worked for somebody else, there were a lot of office politics that I had to navigate that I felt were a waste of my time and energy, and that left me feeling very insecure about my job security. And that was not a good feeling. So where I stand today, it's like, I'm on my own doing this. I'm only answering to myself. I am my own boss. I make my own hours. To me, flexibility is power too, and flexibility comes with money.
LM: Yeah, as my mom would say, money certainly greases the wheels. [If] you have money, that translates [into] power. If you have power, [that] translates into flexibility, [and that] translates into making decisions not out of fear but because you want to do them.
People are unsubscribing, women especially, [from the] the narrative that they were told that they should have. - Lauren McGoodwin
JK: That’s also the best feeling, too, because I definitely made decisions in my 20s that were fear-based, and I was aware of it when I was doing it and it was just such a crummy feeling. So I'm very relieved that I've worked hard to get myself to a place where I don't feel like that anymore. Giving women the tools to have these conversations about salary transparency with their employer — part of the research has also shown that women are not received well when they ask these questions. Don't you feel like it's a matter of, the more women who are empowered to talk about it, the more it forces people to get comfortable with it? We're uncomfortable with it because no one has ever raised us to have these conversations, so it's like a chicken-and-egg situation where women start talking about it more, and then employers have to start hearing and participating in these conversations. And it gets everybody more comfortable with this idea of transparency. [It] was like seeing the way [the] Ellen Pompeo interview was received — people were just lionizing her. And I was like, this is awesome, because as soon as I finished reading the interview, I was like, “Oh she's about to get ripped to shreds because that's what the research says should have happened.” But instead, the total opposite happened and I'm like, wow, we're like really rounding a curve here.
LM: For sure, yeah, people are unsubscribing — women especially — [from the] the narrative that they were told that they should have. For women, all of this is more comfortable or a little easier to do when we're doing it together.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.