Once again Equal Pay Day is approaching. Never heard of it? If you’re a working woman or a man who cares about the women in your life, you need to study up. Equal Pay Day is the day in any given year when women working full-time, year-round catch up to men’s earnings from the previous year.
A simple example: Let’s say the average man made $35,000 last year, from January 1 to December 31. The average woman working the same amount of time made $27,300. It will take her until April 4th of this year to amass the same earnings the guy made by the end of last year. Broken down by race, African-American women won’t meet the benchmark until August, Native American women must wait until September, and Hispanic women will lag even further, until November.
Pay discrimination based on sex has been illegal since the Equal Pay Act was passed way back in 1963. Still, the pay gap remains at 22 cents on the dollar for full-time, year-round work, and it hasn’t moved in over a decade. At that pace the gap won’t close until 2059, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. One big reason is that the burden of proof is all on the woman — employers who discriminate don’t have to do anything — just sit back and dare a woman to sue. Go ahead and hire a lawyer, drag through the courts for a dozen years — that is if we don’t fire you for filing a claim in the first place (retaliation is illegal too — but who’s watching?).
There are a number of reasons for the pay gap that don’t have anything to do with qualifications or education. One is historical discrimination. For most of our history it was legal to pay women less for the same job — employers were even allowed to advertise that fact. Another reason is historically undervaluing “women’s jobs,” like day care attendant and nursing, as compared to “men’s jobs,” like dog pound attendant and auto repair.
Another problem is lack of transparency. Employers are not required to disclose pay, and in many workplaces it’s against the rules to talk about it with co-workers. So women can’t find out what they’re making compared to men on the same job.
But in a bizarre twist on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rules that shield employers, it’s customary for companies to ask for salary history and use that information to set wages for new hires. For job seekers who have been earning less than their counterparts and working below market rates — primarily women — pegging new wages to old wages maintains the discriminatory practice. Use of salary history guarantees that bias follows workers wherever they go, whatever their profession, and no matter their skills. Wage gaps that begin early can follow workers all their working lives.
There is growing bipartisan consensus that a simple change in the hiring process — prohibiting employers from asking job seekers how much they currently are paid — can make a real difference in closing the gender wage gap. The premise is that if salary offers are based on the market value of the position, past performance and candidate’s credentials, not their current salary, the cycle of discrimination can finally be broken.
To date, two states (Massachusetts, New York) and four cities (New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Pittsburgh) have passed legislation prohibiting employers from asking applicants about salary history, and/or prohibiting them from obtaining the information from prior employers. The bills differ in that some apply only to public employers in the jurisdiction, and others apply to all employers, public and private.
With no relief in sight from the federal government in closing the gender pay gap, innovation by states and cities is welcome news. If more follow suit, maybe we won’t have to wait until 2059 to finally stop marking (Un)Equal Pay Day.
A version of this blog also appeared on Medium/Thrive Global