She’ll tell you how she quit to become a junior data analyst for a small government contracting firm, a job that paid her $55,000 a year, a security clearance and 40 unwanted pounds. She worked in a secure building and couldn’t leave it during the day, so she spent her breaks getting coffee at Dunkin’ in the building.
She’ll tell you she left that position and then another, and fears she “ruined her resume” because all that job hopping happened in less than three years.
“I thought nobody would hire me again,” she said. But she researched salary ranges in her field and learned how to highlight her strengths, and when she met with a recruiter, she felt confident talking numbers. “When she asked me what my desired salary range was, I turned her around and said, ‘What’s the budget for the role?'”
While it’s impressive that by the time she was 25, Williams had managed to nearly triple her salary from $40,000, that’s not why I’m telling you about her. I am telling you about her because she is trying to help other people thrive in an often opaque job market.
Williams is a graduate of Northern Virginia Community College and Georgetown University. She has garnered a TikTok following by speaking publicly about her experiences working in Washington. But recently she has continued this conversation. She has persuaded other people in the area to speak openly about their jobs.
For the past week, Williams has been posting videos on TikTok and Instagram under the Salary Transparent Street moniker. They show her standing in the Georgetown area and across the river in Arlington, asking people what they do and how much they make.
The videos show a nurse, a lifeguard, a rocket scientist, an architect and government employees all revealing their wages. The videos feature an editor making $60,000 a year, a Navy contractor making $75,000 a year, and a sales engineer making $145,000 a year. Two teachers put their annual salaries at $83,000 and $100,000, amounts that caused many who watched the videos to express shock and others to cite the area’s high cost of living.
So far, Williams has posted six videos that have been viewed millions of times. One of them has more than 14 million views. “If the Great Resignation has taught us anything, it’s that there is power in numbers,” she said. “When workers are empowered, they can actually influence change. I figured what better way to get open salaries on the internet than by asking strangers on the street? I thought it would be successful, but had no idea it would go as viral as it did.”
She didn’t expect the interviews would have thousands of strangers clicking and commenting, asking for more content. “Love this series,” wrote one commenter. “As someone looking for a major career change please don’t stop these videos!” wrote another. “Phenomenal series. Come over to Philadelphia,” wrote another.
Commentators have urged her to visit Houston, Chicago and New York. Williams said she plans to visit other cities at some point and ask people there about their salaries.
This nationwide tour will no doubt bring in more viewers for Williams, but it will also give her audience a broader view of pay across the country and in their communities. Talking about income remains taboo, and some companies try to prevent employees from disclosing their salaries to colleagues. Efforts to challenge this silence raise important questions. Who benefits most from the lack of wage transparency? Who hurts the most?
“Not having those salaries and not having those open, transparent conversations is really a disadvantage for women and people of color because they’re more likely to be taken advantage of,” Williams said. “So these talks are really important to close the pay gap and increase diversity in companies.”
A few years ago I wrote a column about the district with the largest wage gap in the country for black women. In it I told you about a black woman in her 70’s who worked in the service industry and had no savings or retirement plans. “I’ll probably have to work until I die, and that’s just the truth,” she said.
On the first day, when Williams held a microphone in front of strangers and asked them their wages, she was on edge. She had designed a logo and printed t-shirts so people could see that she had meaning with their questions. Still, she wasn’t sure how people would react to it.
So far she has not met anyone who has become angry or threatening. If people refuse to reveal their wages, she won’t push them. But when they hesitate, she spends time explaining to them why these conversations are important.
Williams recalled an interesting conversation she had with a woman in Arlington a few days ago. The woman recognized Williams from TikTok but said she couldn’t bring herself to reveal her salary. “I’ll work that out in therapy,” joked the woman.
“We’re not trying to change people’s minds overnight. But even those who don’t want to say it go home with something to think about,” Williams said. “So many of us equate our salaries and pay with our worth. We have to get rid of this notion. It’s literally just a number, and there’s a good chance you’re underpaid.”
Some of the salaries people have shared in the videos have left commenters lamenting their own wages, discussing the need for career changes and asking Williams to visit other parts of the district.
Williams said she wants to “hit every area of the city,” but that will take time. After all, she spends her days working just like the people she interviews.