The XX Factor

To Narrow Wage Gap, Congress Might Ban Employers From Asking for Salary History

Women are often damned if they negotiate, damned if they don’t.


When Congress returns from summer recess, members will consider a new bill that will aim to narrow the wage gap between genders and races. Washington, D.C. congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton will introduce a bill with cosponsors Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) that would ban questions about salary history in job interviews and salary negotiations.

Earlier this summer, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to prohibit employers from asking about an applicant’s previous salary. Lawmakers and advocates have predicted that the rule will help break cycles of wage discrimination that keep women and people of color earning less than their white male peers for their entire careers, just because of one period of wage stagnation, a sexist or racist boss, time out from the work force, or a failure to negotiate a higher salary for their first jobs.

“Because many employers set wages based on an applicant’s previous salary, workers from historically disadvantaged groups often start out behind their white male counterparts in salary negotiations and never catch up,” wrote Norton’s office in a statement. As a delegate, Norton, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s first female chair, can only cast a symbolic vote for her own bill.

Women are less likely to negotiate their salaries at all when they apply for jobs, and when they do, they often ask for less than men do. In one study, when female participants simulated negotiating a salary for themselves, they asked for an average of $7,000 less than their male counterparts did. A low salary in a first job can become a permanent onus on a job candidate, weighing down her pay advancement prospects with increasing consequences as she gets older.

But telling women to negotiate pay with potential employers or training them to negotiate better, as a free program in Boston is trying to do, is a half-baked solution for a job market that punishes women for trying to get more money in the first place. One study found that men and women who negotiated their salaries using the same script were perceived differently by male viewers, who approved of the men who negotiated but thought the women were too “demanding.” Another found that people of all genders who negotiated their salaries risked coming off as “unlikable,” but people didn’t care if they worked with unlikable men. Only women made their future colleagues less likely to want to work with them by appearing “unlikable” in a salary negotiation.

This new congressional bill could be particularly important for women of color, whose average adjusted-for-inflation earnings declined between 2004 and 2014, according to a new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The wage gap between men and women, on average, has been gradually closing, partly because men’s wages have been dropping. But white women have reaped a disproportionate share of the benefits. A federal ban on using salary history to inform pay offers could give women of color a much-needed boost, especially for those who rightly suspect that negotiating a salary could make them seem aggressive or disagreeable to potential employers.