Asking about pay in job interviews: now illegal in Massachusetts

The state will bar companies from asking interviewees about their compensation history, a practice that perpetuates disparity between men and women

An office in Madrid.
An office in Madrid.Álvaro García
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Prohibido hablar de sueldo en la entrevista de trabajo para evitar la brecha de género

Women earn less money than men in the United States, and in Spain, China, India and Russia as well. It was that way 50 half a century ago and it is still that way today. So when a potential employer asks a woman in a job interview how much she earned in her previous position, a benchmark used to determine compensation offers to new hires, her answer will likely help perpetuate the pay gap between women and men who do the same job. But not anymore. Massachusetts has become the first US state to approve a law that bars employers from asking applicants’ their salaries. Proponents of this groundbreaking initiative hope it will protect women and minorities whose work history is traditionally more precarious.

After the law goes into effect in 2018, employers in Massachusetts may no longer prevent workers from talking about their salaries among themselves. The law effectively bars companies from prohibiting employees from inquiring about and finding out how much their colleagues make, a standard practice in many American workplaces, because transparency makes it more difficult for cover up inequity and reveal the inequalities that still exist at every rung of the professional latter even in the richest country in the world.

The law effectively bars companies from prohibiting employees from inquiring about and finding out how much their colleagues make, a standard practice in many American workplaces

When the United States signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963 to end wage disparity between men and women, women were earning 59 cents for every dollar a man made. More than 50 years later, women are earning 79 cents to the dollar. Women have effectively received just 20 cents more over the last half century. Though the legislation provided for all groups to have the same rights in the labor market, the habits built into the system have led to very slow progress.

Several studies say that women also expect lower salaries and so they tend to negotiate less than men. A 2014 report on MBA graduates published in the Harvard Business Review said that half the men had negotiated their initial salary offer while only one-eighth of the women did.

Researchers say women’s reluctance to negotiate does not have anything to do with their confidence in their skills. They feared that asking for better pay might cost them the job. And they were not wrong. Research suggests that women are penalized more than men for negotiating. The “social cost of negotiation” means that a potential employer is more likely to turn away a worthy female candidate because she asked for higher pay.

The new law in Massachusetts will bar potential employers from discussing an applicant’s salary history until they have stated their compensation offer. The bipartisan bill —signed into law by Republican Governor Charlie Baker on Monday— is the most progressive initiative on gender pay disparity in the United States, a popular topic in this year’s presidential campaign.

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The legislation has also broadened the definition of “comparable work” beyond two positions with the same title. The law demands equal compensation for work that “requires substantially similar skill, effort and responsibility and is performed under similar working conditions.”

As Facebook Director of Operations Sheryl Sandberg says in her book, “Lean In”: “Most leadership positions are held by men, so women don't expect to achieve them, and that becomes one of the reasons they don't. The same is true with pay. Men generally earn more than women, so people expect women to earn less. And they do.”

English version by Dyane Jean-François.


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