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Money and Sex: Dispelling the Stigma

Money and sex are two areas that many of us have enormous shame around. Unfortunately, secrecy around money and sex has perpetuated huge cultural betrayals against disadvantaged groups. I spoke with a forensic psychiatrist once about a case in which I represented a young woman who was sexually assaulted by a massage therapist. The psychiatrist explained to me that the research shows that people have the highest instances of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in situations of war and sexual violation and it is likely because of the moral stigma we culturally place on those issues. Where people experience traumas in areas that are not morally stigmatizing, there are fewer instances of PTSD, he explained. For example, this would indicate that when a drunk driver causes a car wreck, the person injured by the drunk driver is more likely to have PTSD than a person injured in the same way by a driver who was not drunk.

The moral stigma perpetuated by puritanical ideas that women should be sexually “pure” or that religious leaders cannot commit sexual crimes promotes secrecy and contributes to fostering a culture of sexual crimes. Just talking about sexual violations does a lot to change this culture. These are hard conversations, but we have to be able to talk about sex, even when it is hard, in order to raise a safer generation coming after us. It is okay if it takes personal work to get to a place where it is possible to talk about these issues, but it is worth doing that work to contribute to a safer culture.

Secrecy around money is similar and contributes to enormous inequality. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that in 2017, women overall made approximately $0.81 cents to the dollar that white men made in full-time work. Hispanic women made $0.62 and black women made $0.67 compared to a dollar for white men. It estimates that at the rate the pay gap is currently closing, we will not reach fair wages in the United States until 2059.

A major factor in why the wage gap has remained for so long is lack of transparency in wages. It was only recently that states started passing laws to correct this, making it illegal to retaliate against an employee for talking about their own or other employees’ salaries, and making it more possible for employees to negotiate from an informed place. This is an important shift that can make a real impact on employees understanding what fair wages are and pursuing them. Websites like PayScale and GlassDoor contribute to this, giving employees information about whether their salary is fair in their industry. Since I have started providing Cultural Health Surveys to companies, one interesting thing I have encountered is that employees, based on lack of information within their company, will frequently believe they are being paid fairly within their industry, but unfairly within their company. Often, this is only based on lack of transparency within the company and incorrect gossip about what other employees receive as a salary. This is easy to correct, and if all employee salaries are available, it should not implicate any privacy problems. Check with a lawyer in your state if you are concerned about this, but in general employees don’t have privacy protections and concerns around discrimination take priority over privacy concerns.

In government organizations, we require transparency in public salaries to prevent corruption and fraud, and we should expect no less from ourselves as private business owners. If you are concerned about transparency around salary, be curious about why. If the reason is that the salaries do not seem fair or seem to show favoritism if you look at them all together, that is something you can correct. If it is because of shame around money, that is something worth working on for yourself.

If you move toward financial transparency in terms of employee salary, the first step is making sure that the finances seem fair and represent equality and the inclusion you want to create in your company. Make sure you understand the rational reason for the salaries you are offering and feel good about those reasons (even if you wish you could pay more or less) so that you can explain them to others.

Salary is only one step toward transparency, and there is a lot of power in creating financial transparency throughout your business and allowing your employees to have stake and ownership in the successes and failures of finances throughout the company. Money is one marker of what is succeeding and failing in a business, and it is not the only marker. Money is a measurable marker, however, and that makes it a good symbol for other measures within your company that might feel more powerful or important to you.

When businesses are secretive about their profits and losses, often it is with the intent of hiding failures and promoting successes. This can be for legitimate business reasons of keeping a business open and creating the narrative you want about your company. But too often, secrecy about a business’s finances actually creates suspicion and negative gossip. When employees do not understand how their employer receives funding and uses that funding, it leaves room for them to assume the worst and worry about being fired. That financial insecurity promotes fear about whether others will view them as competent, which then contributes to employees justifying harassing and discriminatory behavior.

The logistics of financial transparency are as simple as sitting down with your team, going over the real numbers in your company, and creating measured pay steps for each position in your company that are openly disclosed and freely discussed. The reality of creating financial transparency is that you may need to develop the skill of holding space for your feelings and for other people’s. Finances can feel loaded because of our thoughts about money and about what our lives and our businesses should look like, but, again, you are not your thoughts, and it is possible to examine and shift them. Any feelings that you or your employees have about a shift to transparency are likely valid, but that doesn’t mean the feelings have to rule the day or force you to hide.

Ultimately, money is just a circumstance. It is neutral and sits there while we choose consciously or unconsciously what to think about it. If you have trade secret or business competition concerns, it is possible to have employees agree to confidentiality regarding some parts of financial transparency. But, in the end, our decisions about whether to disclose or hide our finances always have more to do with our fears around what transparency would mean about us than any real threat to our business.


This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit Or you can purchase online via Amazon.

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