Last year, three digital designers got to talking about pay.

They were all fairly senior, with years of experience under their belt, but they realized that they still had the same questions, the same anxieties about salary negotiations: How much should I ask for? What’s reasonable? And how does my salary compare with that of others in my field?

The lack of information about compensation was staggering. And if it was like this for those who had been in the field for years, what was it like for a designer trying to negotiate a salary for a first job?

Six months later, the designers — Lauren Hallden, Tony Nguyen, and Dan Singer — have published the results of the first Philadelphia Design Compensation Census. Nearly 300 designers contributed — the median annual pay for the lowest-paid designers was $64,000 while the higher end, excluding managers, was $94,000. Not surprisingly, the data, which do not include the names of respondents or their employers, also showed pay disparities along gender and racial lines.

These jobs focus on various facets of product design, including user experience, user interface, visuals, and content.

It’s another sign of the growing politicization of tech workers and part of a trend of pay transparency as a means to correct the power imbalance between workers and management. Last year, museum workers across the country started a wave of salary discussions and organizing efforts with an anonymous, crowdsourced salary spreadsheet. All kinds of workers — from baristas to ad agency staffers to public-interest lawyers — followed suit.

The tech world has seen a wave of activism among its highly educated and well-paid workers. Though their efforts have stopped short of unionization, white-collar workers at the country’s biggest and best-known tech companies, such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, have organized to protest such company policies as forced arbitration, their employer’s effect on climate change, and clients they find problematic, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Do the designers see their project as political?

“It has to be, right?” said Hallden, lead product designer of growth at Talend.

The census, she said, is a reminder that “we need to be advocating for each other.”

The team hopes people who are in positions of privilege — senior designers, hiring managers — use this information to advocate for pay equity within their workplace. The data can act as a jumping-off point for salary conversations because workers can ask: How does my salary compare with these benchmarks?

And it’s already done that, said Singer, senior experience designer at Think Co.: The creation of the census got him and his coworkers talking more freely about pay and led some to negotiate raises.

Singer was initially nervous about sharing the pay survey in his company’s Slack channels — “This isn’t specifically designed to be anti-employer in any way, but it is very much pro-employee,” he said — but found that company leadership was supportive of the effort when he dropped it in the public #random channel.

Think Co. CEO Russ Starke said he supported the spirit of the census and wasn’t worried about what it would mean for his agency: “If you’re operating in a way where you’re hoping that people don’t share information or talk about things, then you’re certainly doing something wrong,” he said.

He added that the numbers in the census weren’t far off from what he would have guessed. “I think we all know there is plenty of work yet to be done to close compensation gaps,” he said, “and the data confirms that.”

Do you work in tech in or around Philadelphia? We’re interested in hearing about your experiences discussing pay with your coworkers, as well as about how child-care and parental leave benefits, or a lack thereof, have affected your career. We can keep your name out of it if you prefer. You can reach reporter Juliana Feliciano Reyes at jreyes@inquirer.com

Most lucrative jobs

Through their analysis of survey data, the group found that the hardest thing about comparing compensation, which includes bonuses, was the variation in job title and responsibilities. So it created several “benchmark jobs” based on respondents’ job responsibilities in order to represent the data.

The lowest-paid job, with a median compensation of $64,000, was what the group called a “visual designer”: someone who focuses “on branding, marketing, motion, or user interface design,” but not experience design.

The highest-paid job, excluding managers and directors, was what they called a “UX designer/researcher”: someone whose job it is to “understand the user’s experience and define the best ways for serving users, not typically including visual design responsibilities.” Workers in these roles made a median compensation of $94,600.

They also found that the bigger the company, the higher workers get paid and that designers working at in-house firms generally get paid more than those working at agencies.

The data also showed that among survey respondents, female, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming designers of color were paid 22% less than white male designers. It’s not a perfect comparison because they didn’t have an equal number of respondents from every identity group to compare for each job title, but the team said it tried to not include any data in the analysis that would be misleading. In 2018, women who work full time were paid 82 cents for every dollar made by men who work full time, amounting to an 18% wage gap.

Benefits for parents scarce

Just more than half of respondents said their employers offered paid parental leave, while just more than one-third said their employer offered a wellness room, such as a nursing room for mothers. One percent of respondents said their employer offered some kind of child-care benefit. The project leaders noted, though, that these low numbers might be due to the fact that some people aren’t aware of the benefits their employer provides because they haven’t had to use them or because they’re not widely publicized.

Still, the data aren’t surprising: The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t mandate paid parental leave, although cities and states are increasingly mandating it and employers, especially those employing white-collar workers, are bulking up their offerings to attract talent.

At least 113 million workers still don’t have access to paid parental leave, according to 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics data. And a lack of child-care benefits disproportionately hurts women’s chances of advancing in their careers, a group of 1,800 working mothers at Amazon told the company last March.