I made $24,000 in my first job as an editorial assistant at Good Housekeeping. At 25 (um, only three years later), I made $95,000 as a deputy editor at Cosmo. By the time I was 35, I was making nearly $200K as the executive editor at Parents. At my height, I was bringing in about $250K with salary and bonuses. This year? I’ve launched a new business, and I’ll be lucky to make half that.
But that’s OK. Because I have talked to so many people about salaries over the years — theirs and mine. So I have a good basis of comparison about where I am now and where I can go. I keep asking my friends, especially those that are entrepreneurs what they make, what their rates are, how they ask for what they deserve. I am grateful for those conversations and without them, I wouldn’t have the confidence to start over and build something new. In fact, my entire career I have been open about my salary and have encouraged my media friends, and my Ed2010 students and Talent Fairy coaching clients to be open about theirs as well. The clearer the transparency in salary, the better for us all.
That is the argument that Cynthia Medina Carson is making with her new company, Wager.
A former international relations expert turned recruiter, Cindy started Wager because she saw firsthand how the lack of salary information created unnecessary information barriers and anxiety in the workplace. People kept asking the same question, “Who can I ask about salaries?” So she jumped in to help fill that gap. In our interview, we talk about how to ask for the salary you deserve, when you should take a pay cut, and why women are still making less than men. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Talent Fairy: You have a fascinating past. Tell me a bit more about your career history how that led you to start Wager this year.
Cynthia Medina Carson: At 12 years old I raised my hand and said I wanted to work in the government; I wanted to be in public service. The first half of my life was in public policy — I started in the Peace Corp! Then for years, I worked in international relations — for the Department of Treasury, Homeland Security, and JP Morgan. But I was always trying to find the bridge between serving and the private sector. How is the individual being treated in the world? I started recruiting for startups and then had my own consulting group.
When I was on the other side of the table with a candidate, I had an uncomfortable feeling. I realized I was part of the wage gap problem. I had all of this information and the person on the other side had to guess what was in my hand. It was like, "Wrong guess! You just shortchanged yourself $10K!" And I thought This is not OK. So in January, I was on the couch with my husband and wondered, What if I could fix this problem? What if everyone could reveal their salaries? Eventually, I worked the courage up to bcc 500 of my closest friends. I said I want you to reveal your salary. I am going to pair you with someone else if so you can have a salary conversation. That is how Wager came to be.
TF: That’s really cool. So how were you pairing them? By their level of experience or their industry?
CMC: I pride myself on understanding a person and reading between the lines of their resume or their LinkedIn profile. I can see who they are and who they should meet. I would take that information and ask them for their 2 cents regarding what they are looking for. I spent my life putting people together because I started with no network.
TF: I love that. It’s exactly how I started out. I came to New York from Indiana and had absolutely zero connections in the magazine industry. But yet everyone told me that in order to make it I had to “know people.”
CMC: Yes! I had to learn how to create a network from scratch. I made choices throughout my career based on Will that grow my network? I’m really passionate about that, about building circles of trust, especially for women and women of color. It’s not networking; it’s building a network. It’s different. It’s a long-term play. You are planting the seeds to grow a garden. It’s the free flow of information. With networking you go out to some event and bring 10 business cards. It’s just transactional.
TF: I’m with you. And inauthentic right? I like to say that true networking is about creating friendships.
CMC: Yes. I think it comes naturally and easily to women, the way we help each other. It comes from our gut.
TF: We are so on the same page. OK! Back to money! Why is talking about how much we make still so damn taboo?
CMC: Well it’s interesting. What we have found is that the taboo evaporates in like 5 minutes. When people sat down for those salary conversations, when they talked about what they make …. nothing bad happened! Within 3-5 minutes that weird part went away. And a bond was created. This person became more than just a random LinkedIn connection. You talked money. It’s like you were sitting next to each other on an airplane and you almost crashed—and then you survived! A bond is made.
TF: That’s hilarious but so true. My friends and I have shared our salaries at every stage in our career — and it was immensely helpful in my own negotiations. Why do you think salary transparency is especially important in creative industries like media and marketing?
CMC: I have a lot of contacts and friends who are creatives. I feel like now is your time: You are the content providers for the world! Everyone needs content to build their business from video to Instagram to website content. You are on the main stage now. I’ve found that creatives actually have many hats and they have to think about that when they are setting their rate. They are often underpaid. They need to start by having conversations with other creatives—find your people! Tell people what you are doing. People don’t share what they are doing. Post on Facebook or on LinkedIn. Bcc your closest friends to say, This is what I’m doing. This is what I’m looking for. That is really obvious. But a lot of people don’t do it. I get frustrated when people don’t want to share information. Find other creatives so you can share your rate. I think the best places are niche Facebook groups. Find your group, say one of the women writers where you’ll find the best apples-to-apples comparison.
TF: I’m totally nodding along here. I co-host a private Facebook group for former magazine editors. It’s super niche. It’s nearly all women and we only allow people who have been print magazine editors, words people. People do ask about rates occasionally, but I’d like to encourage more of it. How can I do that?
CMC: Well, it requires us to stop worrying. Especially as women. We have to ASK for what we want. Men ask all the time. Men have no qualms asking. Don’t be a man, but also don’t be afraid of the discussion of money. Say, I’ve been told I should be charging $100-$150 an hour. Does that seem right? Should my range be higher? Ranges help; they help you feel more confident.
TF: Most of my community work in media or editorial content where the salaries and rates have dropped over the years and layoffs are still common. How do you estimate your own worth when the industry standard has dropped?
CMC: Let’s back up. What skills do you have? Talk to recruiters and headhunters. What are people paying for people with your skill set? I had friends who were editors at magazines. They had good jobs — and then a few things happened at once: The market tanked and they were also women who were at a certain time in their life. They had to rebuild and ask themselves: What is my added value? Where is the market going and am I prepared for that market? Is there a part of my job that gets paid more? What does that position look like? What do I need to get there? I can shift over. I’m going to do my Coursera. Because that is my goal. March toward the goal! You can’t be what you were before and expect to make the same.
TF: Great point. The job market in general now demands that you be on your toes, to constantly be pivoting.
CMC: Now every quarter you have to look at what you’re doing to keep up with the market.
Ask yourself: What am I good at? What direction do I want to go? People like to stay in this space where they are and they are just HOPING. And that doesn’t work.
TF: So should you take the pay cut?
CMC: It’s OK to take a pay cut, but take a strategic pay cut. I would take a pay cut if you know that the job is going to lead you to where you need to be. You can ask, Is this something we can revisit in a year? And get it in writing. You may have to take a step back but look where are you best positioned to be — and go there and go fast!
TF: Let’s talk a bit about how to broach the salary conversation in an interview. As a hiring manager, and now as a recruiter, I like to get it out of the way in the first talk — to waste anyone’s time.
CMC: It boggles my mind the money that is wasted by not asking about salary from the start! I put the onus on the companies. They should be putting a range on their job descriptions. That is changing, there is definitely more transparency in the world today. Millennials especially are starting to ask questions: How do we not know what we are going to make? Who set the rules that we are not supposed to know? And companies are starting to respond to this.
TF: So if you are the candidate, how do you bring it up if the recruiter or hiring manager doesn’t?
CMC: Bring it up before the first phone call ends: OK: this all sounds great. What is your salary range for this position?
TF: I think folks are afraid that they’ll just get a question back: What are your expectations? It’s such a dance!
CMC: If no one is going to give you a range, you have to come in with one. And if the salary doesn’t fit within your range, you can always say, Let’s talk about this so I can get a better sense of the job: Will I be managing two people or twenty? Will there be travel involved? I don’t know enough to tell you how much the job is worth. It goes back to what the job is worth, not what you are worth. Tell them, Let me go back and do some research in 48 hours and see if that salary is a possibility based on the role. Then ask yourself: Is there someone I can talk to in my network who can help me? Do your homework! Find the groups. Get on salary.com. Have Wager conversations!
TF: New York recently passed a law that made it illegal for hiring managers or recruiters to ask someone’s current salary. It was supposed to help women and minorities bridge the wage gap so they weren’t just building on their previous low salary. Is it working?
CMC: From what women have said to me, it can feel even more overwhelming. You are now supposed to find your worth from scratch. It does put the onus on the individual. But you know what? It’s time. We know how to research, we know how to ask. It’s now up to us to find that information. For me, the law is an improvement. Women will often start off their career, the first job out of college, making less than their male counterparts. They build on that number in smaller increments than men and in the long run of their career they will have missed out on over $400,000 if you are a white woman and 1million of you are a Latina woman. You will not catch up. And then one day you are going to see someone’s salary in a document left in the printer and you are going to be really upset. The good thing about this law is that it allows women to not focus on what they made before and instead they can focus on what both they, and the role are worth.
What bugs me is if I [as a recruiter] tell you that the job is in the $85-90K range and you are really looking for $110K but you say, Let’s keep talking. Men do this all the time. They’ll say they had a change of heart and when you go to offer the job they say they really want more. Women don’t do this! That is where women fail. They will never ask again after that. A guy will come in and change the range later. They’ll realize that the people involved with the interview process fell in love with them and they will add $10K more to their asking salary. This is why salary transparency is important. If everyone did it, it wouldn’t be a thing. This is the sneaky part. All the men are making 20 percent more than women because of this!
TF: A lot of my community is made up of freelance writers or contractors. How should they be determining their rates in particular?
CMC: By 2027 most of the workforce will be part-time or full-time freelance. Think about the scope of that! It’s going to be a large segment of the population. It’s no longer that you stumble upon being freelance between jobs. This is a new career path. A choice you are making to create some balance in your life. It doesn’t mean you are going to be paid less. But you do need to able to advocate in that direction. One of the bits of advice I give to freelancers is If you can do a coffee, always do a coffee. When you see someone’s face you see who they are. And you are more willing to help them. You can say, Listen, I know you are looking for $50 an hour, but my rate is $75. I will save you money over time. Because I have been doing this for a long time. I can do it faster and I can do it better. It’s harder for them to say no face to face.
TF: We definitely need to get more comfortable at talking about money if we want to make more of it! So how can folks participate in Wager?
CMC: They can go on the site and sign up! I will match them with someone who fits with them and with their background. It’s $75 for a match, but if they say they heard about us from Talent Fairy I’ll give them 50 percent off.
TF: Wow! That’s awesome!
CMC: Basically I just want to help people get all this out in the open.
TF: Me too! I think that there is a lot we can do together. Let’s keep talking!