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Pay Equality Hindered by Dark Side of Salary Speak

President Barack Obama signs executive actions aimed at closing a compensation gender gap that favors men, Tuesday, April 8, 2014.

It’s one of the hottest discussions in Hollywood: pay equity.

Actor Jennifer Lawrence wrote a blog post about pay inequality in the film industry and sparked a new round of debate on the topic.

Lawrence is the world’s highest paid actress in 2015. When a film company’s email was hacked, it was revealed that women are systematically paid less than men colleagues.

For women, this is not news. But thanks to the hacked data and Lawrence’s blog post, more people are talking about the issue.

Far from the stars of Hollywood, the Latina Equal Pay Day is raising awareness for Latinas, who generally make 55 cents for every dollar a white, non-Hispanic man makes.

Even in the tech industry, where people share pay information using the social media hashtag #talkpay, women are paid far less than men doing the same work.

Also last month at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Houston, GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving advised: “Promote more transparency in the industry.”

But talk is easier than action.

Equal pay for equal work has been law in the United States since 1963, when President John F. Kennedy signed the Fair Pay Act. Sixty years later, has the law closed the pay gap between men and women?

According to U.S. Census Bureau, women were still paid only 79 cents for every dollar a man made in 2014: 21 cents less than their male peers. And the pay is worse for African-American and Hispanic women.

The causes of the gender pay gap are complex. Factors include discrimination, work-life balance, and segregation of the labor market. Another factor is stereotyping how men and women’s jobs are evaluated and classified: Women teachers make less than male teachers even though they perform the same job.

Role of an anonymous note

Pay secrecy was challenged legally by a woman named Lilly Ledbetter. In 1998, after working for Goodyear in Alabama for 19 years, she retired from the tire company as area manager. She received an anonymous note revealing that her male colleagues were earning as much as 15 percent to 40 percent more for the same job.

“It was devastating, so humiliating. I don’t think I ever had a lower feeling in my all life,” Ledbetter recalled.

She filed a lawsuit. It reached the Supreme Court, which denied her claim. Justification for the decision was that she was too late, that she did not file suit 180 days from her first pay check.

But she didn't know this information at that time. It was not an issue she and her colleagues discussed, as the company prohibited talking about salaries.

“When you can't talk about your pay then you can’t discover your pay discrimination,” said attorney Abigail Bar-Lev, an expert at the National Women Law Center.

The first law President Barack Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009. It extends the 180 days of complaint to the last paycheck.

Talking about salaries cannot legally be prohibited and companies can’t punish employees for doing so. There is an 80-year-old law governing this right. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which became law in 1935, is the basis for an employee's right to talk about wages with their coworkers.

Still some gaps

Obama also signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against employees who talk about their salaries or other compensation information last year.

"Pay secrecy fosters discrimination and we should not tolerate it,” President Obama said, “not in federal contracting or anywhere else."

The problem is some supervisors and managers are not defined as employees by the NLRA. Nor are government employees or employees of airlines and railroads. They are covered by a different labor law, said Cynthia Estlund, a law professor at New York University.

The ban is not widely known, partly because remedies are so limited, added Estlund.

The situation on the state level is mixed. Currently, 11 states have passed some type of protection for workers who share salary information, said Erin Prangley, associate director for government relations at the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

The AAUW has been working on gender pay gap longer than any other group in the United States and compiles reports on each state. In September, California celebrated a state equal pay law that could be stronger than federal regulations.

Individual responsibility

Employees have a role in the issue, as well. A new survey by LinkedIn showed nearly 73 percent of full-time workers aren’t comfortable discussing their pay with colleagues. Women, in particular, tend not to ask about pay and tend to be offered lower starting salaries. Often, they do not ask for appropriate raises, said Estlund.

Among those polled, 13 percent said they were “completely comfortable” with sharing. Fourteen percent said they would talk only with close colleagues, but not in front of their team.

However, social media might change how people talk about their income. In May, thousands of people joined the #talkpay hashtag, and shared their personal income information. The goal was the same: reduce the gender pay gap.