One Way to Close the Gender Pay Gap: Lie

Government data say salary-history questions can keep women’s pay low.

This Office of Personnel Management finds that answering salary history questions can lower women's pay.
National Journal
Aug. 14, 2015, 9:52 a.m.

There are a lot of hard ques­tions dur­ing most job in­ter­views, and there’s one in par­tic­u­lar that’s as wel­comed as it is dreaded: salary his­tory.

The ques­tion of salary his­tory is a prom­ising sign that a po­ten­tial em­ploy­er is ser­i­ously con­sid­er­ing hir­ing a par­tic­u­lar can­did­ate — they’re look­ing at their budgets and see­ing what they can af­ford. But an­swer­ing can back­fire, res­ult­ing in lower pay, and some re­com­mend the safe route of re­fus­ing to dis­close it, or the even ball­si­er ap­proach of ly­ing about it. The premise for the lat­ter op­tion: The game isn’t fair, so don’t play fairly.

In be­ha­vi­or­al-eco­nom­ics-speak, a po­ten­tial em­ploy­ee’s salary his­tory is in­form­a­tion that can res­ult in an­chor­ing — the cog­nit­ive bi­as that makes people fo­cus around a num­ber once it has been stated, with only some small room for ad­just­ment. Hence why ly­ing about one’s salary his­tory is use­ful: One study on the ef­fect of an­chors on salary of­fers found that even im­plaus­ibly high an­chors res­ul­ted in bet­ter com­pens­a­tion.

But this can have un­in­ten­ded — and un­fair — con­sequences: Beth Cobert at the Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s hu­man-re­sources de­part­ment, ar­gues that the ques­tion can per­petu­ate gender in­equal­ity. Last week, Cobert is­sued a memo ad­vising fed­er­al agen­cies against an over-re­li­ance on salary his­tory for de­term­in­ing com­pens­a­tion.

“Re­li­ance on ex­ist­ing salary to set pay could po­ten­tially ad­versely af­fect a can­did­ate who is re­turn­ing to the work­place after hav­ing taken ex­ten­ded time off from his or her ca­reer or for whom an ex­ist­ing rate of pay is not re­flect­ive of the can­did­ate’s cur­rent qual­i­fic­a­tions or ex­ist­ing labor-mar­ket con­di­tions,” said Cobert in the memo.

While the memo men­tions both genders, the pat­tern is more likely to ad­versely af­fect wo­men, es­pe­cially those who have kids. One study found that while chil­dren in­creased a man’s earn­ings by 6 per­cent, a wo­man’s earn­ings de­creased by 4 per­cent for each child she had. Last year, OPM found in a study that the start­ing salar­ies of fe­male fed­er­al em­ploy­ees were 10 per­cent lower than those of male fed­er­al em­ploy­ees. The new rule would also help with eras­ing the ef­fects of pay dis­crim­in­a­tion at past jobs, which would carry over if salary his­tory is the basis for how much a work­er is paid at a new job.

When it comes to the over­all pic­ture, one re­cent study by Pew had some en­cour­aging res­ults: Young wo­men are clos­ing the gap, earn­ing 93 per­cent of what young males earn. But that doesn’t ac­count for the fact that it’s later in people’s ca­reers that the biggest gaps hap­pen — due to the moth­er­hood pen­alty and the need for more wo­men in high­er-pay­ing jobs and po­s­i­tions.

Re­prin­ted with the per­mis­sion of The At­lantic. The ori­gin­al ver­sion can be found here.

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