An Invitation To Transparency: Reflections on an Open Salary Spreadsheet

This is the first of two pieces in a series

By Sara Shapiro-Plevan and Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu

Google Salary Sharing Spreadsheets are all the rage.” Yes, they are. And the operative word is rage. We at The Gender Equity in Hiring Project note a collective, simmering rage, a burgeoning awareness that transparency is key to personal and professional advancement, and that data and data sharing can offer some leverage in helping to encourage shifts in organizational practice, as well as making individual strides toward more equitable salaries. People are angry. Not just because they’re not being paid equitably – they aren’t – but because of the continued resistance to transparency across our Jewish professional field. 

The Gender Equity in Hiring Project is regularly inundated with queries from individuals who have no other place to turn to benchmark salary data and comps and engage in real market research as they negotiate salaries and contracts, both for new positions and as they advance in their current roles. Employees are lost, isolated in their search for information, and would like to be able to empower themselves, but cannot. As a result, they feel a deep sense of desperation. They also would like to be resources to their colleagues, and know they cannot lift up others without this data, too. Spreadsheets full of data will never help to achieve the transparency we need to support effective benchmarking and healthy and respectful negotiation for mutual benefit. Public data collections will never take the place of thoughtfully designed compensation philosophies, salary banding and other strategies on the journey toward greater organizational transparency around compensation. Public data collections should be an invitation to be in conversation, and a recognition that we as a field must make a change, toward greater transparency and flatter structures that hold both employers and employees accountable for understanding how compensation works.

In November 2019, The Gender Equity in Hiring Project attempted an experiment in collaborative transparency by inaugurating a salary sharing spreadsheet for Jewish communal professionals. Within days of the opening of the spreadsheet, hundreds of entries had been submitted, documenting giant swings in salary ranges, years in the field, organizational affiliation, role and geographic diversity. This experiment immediately generated a great deal of interest, and we were able to lift up participation thanks to attention from the Jewish press in articles put out by The Forward and The Jewish Week (New York) and eJewishPhilanthropy. We aimed to close the effort by December 31, 2019, gather and analyze the data, and share a snapshot with the Jewish community, both for our own communal learning, to motivate action, and lift up the value of transparency where we can. Our plan to share data and our learnings from this work was, like so much this year, stymied by the pandemic. This is the first of two contributions to our community that share our reflections and learning on this work, and the second will be a deeper dive into the data that we collected to consider what we might learn. The second in this series will contain a more robust look at and analysis of the data, which we hope will help to lead us forward and offer helpful insights about this experiment and what data needs to be collected in the future. 

What we learned

Crowdsourcing data generates a great deal of collective enthusiasm

On a positive note, we celebrate that this democratic approach is deeply appealing at a time when web-based tools enable the communal collection and sharing of data in a flatter, less hierarchical and more egalitarian manner. More people from a more diverse set of demographics, creating a larger potential pool of participants, are able to contribute. Endless numbers of our Jewish communal colleagues were enthused by the notion that they might be able to gather data without having to beg for it, and that they would then be able to have concrete data to share with supervisors to anchor their negotiation. They recognized the difficulty in gathering this data individually, searching out market comps alone, and noted with gratitude a certain comfort in being able to do this in collegial community, sharing the burden. Individual burden was then swapped for this collective enthusiasm, and dare we say gratitude, for being able to contribute information, and then harvest from it. Employees across the spectrum were able to see their work reflected in the experience (and salaries) of other professionals, and feel either comforted that they are remunerated properly or that they have the knowledge necessary (and again, the data) then to negotiate appropriately. 

Crowdsourcing data also generates a great deal of anxiety

And yet, this work has fostered a deep-seated anxiety that what might be uncovered in this work may in fact shed light on very real truths that have heretofore not been revealed, that not so secret secrets may become visible, and the data that emerges may itself point to deep challenges and inequities across our systems. 

Anxieties are surfaced that may not be rooted in realities, but they lean toward an invitation to transparency that invites concern about the unknown. Questions about this bubbled up from across our networks – would professionals contribute their data? Would they be able to anonymize their data adequately in order to feel comfortable participating? How vulnerable would this make them? Would senior members of our field bother, if they felt that their positions were secure, or if they were already “excellent negotiators” and did not feel the urgency to root their negotiations in benchmarked data and thorough market research?

In all of this, however, we were only contacted by two individuals with concrete concerns about participation. One claimed that what we were doing would undermine the ability of all Jewish organizations to effectively negotiate with their employees, and would then, as a result, mark a loss of power for employers. The other feared that they would be “outed” as the highest-paid individual in their sub-field. Both of these represent valid concerns that we want to recognize and appreciate. These kinds of data collections – and this kind of transparency – involve both a loss of a certain kind of power that employers have long held. And for those at the very top of organizational hierarchies, in the C-suite, at the highest salary levels, public knowledge of their salaries combined with their titles may make them feel a kind of exposure, contributing to the potential for criticism and furthering a feeling of vulnerability. The first person we spoke to tapped into a current of anger that we recognized, as they acknowledged in their words the fear of forfeiture of privilege that has long been the domain of Jewish communal leadership. We note with gratitude that the second person described here did eventually contribute their information to our data collection, recognizing that where they may have been vulnerable, the benefit of transparency outweighs the risk.

Data is in short supply 

The Jewish community doesn’t collect enough data. This effort collected 730 unique users’ data, plus many additional partial profiles. This represents approximately 1% of those employed in and by not for profits in the Jewish community. P. Burstein’s 2011 study, “Jewish Nonprofit Organizations in the U.S.: A Preliminary Survey,” (Contemporary Jewry, July 2011) , as cited in Leading Edge’s 2019 Are Jewish Organizations Great Places to Work, cites the following data on the size of the employee population: In 2009, 9482 Jewish organizations were counted across the U.S. By multiplying the number of Jewish organizations (9,482) by the average number of employees per nonprofit organization (7.7), we can estimate the total number of employees in the Jewish communal sector at 73,000.  We note that when this is rounded up to 9500 x 8, the total may be as high as 76,000, representing some disparities in reporting. 

Additionally, and highlighting the need for additional data, these total numbers are based on a data collection that dates to 2011, and is documented in Leading Edge’s yearly work. Leading Edge is the only organization currently collecting employee data, and can only collect some of the endless amounts of helpful data that might offer insight into compensation, compensation philosophy, salary banding, and structures and disparities across the field. 

If we at the Gender Equity in Hiring Project had kept the spreadsheet open and available for individual contributions, we would have gathered much more, but we’re unclear if that data would have helped to clarify and provide the specificity needed (see below). Much more data is needed, much more opportunities for research exist, and we have ample opportunity to inquire into specific aspects of employees’ current experience to determine what data is most urgent to collect. 

Cultivating an Appreciation for Experimentation

This entire effort was an experiment. Recognizing the success of similar experiments in other professional domains, The Gender Equity in Hiring Project attempted this to see if it would “work” and what we might learn, not only from the data but from the process. We appreciated the risk for individuals in the invitation to share their private information (however anonymized) for an indeterminate public good. At the same time, we hoped to describe this as an opportunity and experiment to learn from this data collection. This pushed some edges, made many feel uncomfortable, and we celebrate this. Creating opportunities for communal experimentation, either individually or in partnerships between organizations, invites and models a spirit of experimentation and risk-taking, increases our communal threshold for failure and learning from failure, and builds an appetite for iteration on the way toward prototyping and learning. 

Cleaning and sorting (and aggregating) data is a bigger job than we expected. 

When gathering this data in specific subfields, experiments have been within specific, limited fields (The Washington Post newsroom staff, baristas, paralegals). We cut a very wide swath across the Jewish professional ecosystem, and collected data generally – at every tier of professional life, from the C-suite to administrative support staff. The data collected would have been significantly more useful had we limited the scope of this collection to specific sub-fields. In addition, we experimented with allowing people to contribute as they wished, by self-defining the parameters of their contributions. For any future data collections, we recommend delimiting data specifically, inviting uniform contributions, categorization and ease of sorting. For example, when asked to share location, contributors shared information ranging from “New York City” to “rural area” to medium-sized suburb” to “suburb of large mid-western Jewish community.” We would recommend helpful drop-down menus that enable people to document their information carefully and accurately, albeit generally and anonymously, in ways that allow for helpful sorting and aggregation of data. Thanks to Jacqueline Lebwohl, our gifted data analyst, we were able to make sense of the data, sort it properly, begin the process of aggregating it and identifying future directions for experimentation, all while asking the wise questions necessary to reflect on the process. 

Lack of clarity about employee rights

Many, many employees in the Jewish community are not aware of their rights. We were notified by a not insignificant number of potential participants that they could not participate because their employers forbid their participation. They – and their employers – believe that benchmarking salaries – inquiring into others’ salaries or even discussing their salary with others inside or outside their organization – is illegal. They believe this because they are told this by colleagues, in the form of rumors spread out of fear. Others have signed compensation confidentiality clauses in their contracts, placed illegally and often out of ignorance by human resources professionals. Yet others also believe this because they are often told this by their supervisors who are looking to control employees and compensation data for all the reasons we have cited above: to limit transparency and to retain power. 

Employers cannot forbid, not verbally nor in written policy, employees from discussing salary. They cannot ban discussion in person, cannot ban writing about it, or even discussion of salary in social media spaces. All of this conversation about salary and pay is safeguarded by law in Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees employees “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” To clarify, it is “concerted activity” taken for “mutual aid or protection” which our work pursues, and we believe that the transparency we seek will, if managed in a “concerted” fashion, work to be for the mutual aid, protection and benefit of all employees at all tiers of Jewish professional life. And to this end, if this is an issue that you have confronted, please be in touch. We are eager to help set the record straight about this issue, which we believe both empowers employees and employers to work from places of transparency and data, and to support both sides of the organizational relationship so that this can become a dialogue and a part of our Jewish workplace culture. 

A Pandemic Changes Us

We had hoped to release data from this spreadsheet 3 months after we closed out our work on December 31, 2019. This had us closely examining the preliminary results at the end of February and in early March, coinciding with the challenging moments at which the Jewish community very quickly began to shut down. We chose to pause, if only because we recognized that any release of this data might be increasingly irrelevant, given the large number of layoffs and impending job loss within our Jewish communal system, and that salaries would likely be depressed, or at least static, thanks to the shifting pandemic-affected economy. We also recognize that reviewing this data in light of the changes across our professional ecosystem may cause them to be misinterpreted, and we wanted to share them with some context. We do not yet know how the pandemic affects salaries, not for new hires (of which there are many, in spite of the economy and continued job loss), nor for internal increases (both cost of living and merit-based, where those exist). 

We only know that the pandemic has sped up our clarity about the necessity for transparency. Instead of increased opacity about hiring, salary, negotiation and employment processes writ large, we support and encourage communal conversation about transparency in compensation philosophy, salary banding, organizational change, and hope that as a field we can strive for these changes that may be the good that grows out of this difficult time.  

Turn Our Rage into Action

We are, like so many of our colleagues, moved by Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability. In her 2017 book Braving the Wilderness, she reminds her reader that “externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection.” Anger has the capacity to serve as a catalyst for change. We seek to tap that collective frustration and honor it, and allow it to guide us not to seek more – and more specific – data on salaries, but to advocate for transparency, to support organizations as they work toward salary banding and clarity on their compensation strategies and philosophies. 

Our Pay Equity and Compensation Philosophy Working Group, made up of Jewish professionals across the tiers of organizational hierarchy from large organizations and small, from synagogues, camps and not for profit organizations of all kinds, including staff members, HR directors and CEOs, is just getting started tackling this work. We invite you to join us. GEiHP is pleased to have collaborated with Leading Edge in their work on salary banding with the release of the excellent guide Salary Banding: Valuing Talent with Intention and Transparency. We’re using this resource in our working group as a resource to support those at various stages of this process. And in all of this, we are led to take our collective frustration and motivation and turn it into action. 

How will you begin? 

How will you turn this data into action? 

What are the next steps we can take as both individuals and a community?

What help do you need? Who are the partners who can help you to lift this to the next level? The Gender Equity in Hiring Project is here to support this work, and to join you in partnership to make change. Our work is to help you – and our entire Jewish community – to level the playing field by lifting up the value of transparency and data, and their links to gender equity.

We invite you to join us for An Invitation To Transparency: Reflections on an Open Salary Spreadsheet,  a public conversation on transparency, data and our findings on Thursday, February 11, 2021 at 9am PT/12pm ET. Please RSVP at www.genderequityinhiringproject.org

Sara Shapiro-Plevan is the CEO of The Gender Equity in Hiring Project in The Jewish Community, and Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the President. Be in touch at info@genderequityinhiringproject.org.