Here's a question that makes even the most confident of job seekers pause: What is your salary history?
Job candidates in Massachusetts will soon no longer have to fret this common query. Last month the Massachusetts state legislature passed what has been called the strongestequal pay law in the country.
State businesses now have two years to implement standards designed to create a more equal and transparent workspace. In addition to refraining from asking candidates about their salary history, employers must pay all employees the same wage for "comparable" positions, regardless of gender.
There are various factors that help explain why men are still, on average, paid more than women, more than 50 years after the Equal Pay Act made gender-based wage discrimination illegal. Women, when compared to men, hold lower-paying jobs and are less likely to ascend to high-level positions. Yet wage disparities persist even among corporate executives and doctors, studies have shown. As much as 40% of the gender-wage gap is unexplained.
Women earn 79% of what men earn, meaning a full-time working woman's median annual salary is $10,800 less than what a man makes. This gap varies depending on the woman's state and racial background.
Eliminating salary history from the job application process could help "cut off wage discrimination at the knees," says Sarah Fleisch Fink, the director of workplace policy and senior counsel at the Washington, D.C.-based policy and advocacy group National Partnership for Women & Families. "We suspect this has a significant impact on what someone is being paid."
The idea is that as women are paid less over time, their salaries at previous positions help set lower rates at their new jobs, compared to what their male counterparts are earning. Or, revealing a salary history could even, in some cases, cost someone the job.
Reversing course on this standardized application process for many employers could require them to reconsider the value of an individual position and the potential employee's background, Fleisch Fink continued.
"That's really how we should be thinking about pay," she said.
This is good news for workers, especially women, in Massachusetts, the first state to have forbidden salary history inquiries. Workers there, in addition to 15 other states, including Connecticut and California, are also protected from retaliation if they discuss salaries with colleagues.
For workers outside of Massachusetts, the legal playing field remains a bit more complicated.
Women will sometimes call the Washington, D.C.-based National Women's Law Center with questions about their salary, or to voice concern about of the legality of their male employees' suspected higher salaries, says Emily Martin, the organization's general counsel and vice president for workplace justice. She recommends women familiarize themselves with the law and consider speaking with an attorney in certain cases.
"A lot of employers have pay secrecy rules that are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act, so if someone is confronting a policy at work saying they can't talk about how much you make with your co-workers it is definitely worth talking to an attorney, if you feel like you are potentially at risk from your employer," Martin said.
There are also various, thoughtful ways to approach salary history questions.
Job candidates could explain their previous salary histories and then say if and why they felt like they were underpaid for their previous work. They could also express why they think a higher future salary is appropriate.
Kim Keating, CEO of Keating Advisors, which provides compensation consulting to individuals, companies and organizations like Human Rights Campaign, recommends against sharing specific previous or current salary figures.
"The person who names a number first is at a disadvantage," Keating said. "You can say I am focused on getting a number that is fair and equitable and if they press you can say my current compensation doesn't reflect my present capabilities and explain what you are hoping to be compensated and why."
But not all people are in a position to consider withholding or finagling information, as they might consider themselves vulnerable in the job market.
"It's a difficult moment to push back against," Martin said. "Which is why I think the approach Massachusetts is taking is a good model."
Women are also less likely to negotiate their salaries than men, as a 2016 Harvard Business Reviewstudy shows, and they don't necessarily perform well in negotiations they are forced into, as opposed to those they initiate.
Keating's organization usually works with companies whose employees have expressed feelings of unfairness over compensation. Her approach can involve collecting data on hiring and promotion practices to help create a more transparent system.
This past spring a small group of companies like Stella McCartney and Johnson & Johnson signed a White House-sponsored equal pay pledge, with Care.com, among others, spelling out its plan to take certain actions, including planning and executing equal pay reviews and regular equal pay audits.
Despite this progress, the onus still mostly falls on individual workers.
Martin says the Massachusetts equal pay legislation signals a recognition for "concrete solutions in this area," and she expects to see new state bills introduced that mirror this legislation. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would penalize employers for retaliating against workers for discussing salaries, has been stalled in Congress since 2013.
"There is still a gap and it is just attributable to discrimination," Fleisch Fink said. "You start getting at that gap when you increase transparency, and that would hopefully mean we would start to see meaningful decreases in the wage gap."