Pay Discrimination Begins With Bias, Is Abetted by Pay Secrecy

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Bad enough that the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday will keep many workers from suing their employers for pay discrimination. Worse, it’ll reinforce bosses’ penchant for keeping workers’ pay a secret from everyone else. Here, from Pamela Kruger in the Huffington Post (bolds mine):

[The Court] overturned a jury’s award to Lily Ledbetter, a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company supervisor of 19 years who earned as much as 40 percent less than her male co-workers, finding that employees must complain within 180 days of each alleged discriminatory pay decision in order to prevail. (Never mind that employers often do their best to hide pay discrimination, or that wage gaps tend to widen over time, as subsequent raises are based on the original low pay.)

Pay discrimination begins with bias: an employer values the work of an employee less because of his or her race, gender, religion, disability. But it’s clearly abetted by the secrecy surrounding pay that we take for granted in the American workplace.

Do you know what your colleague in the cubicle next door makes? Or your boss? Or the intern?

Why the secrecy? You might argue it’s a cultural thing: we Americans are touchy about money, and we don’t like our neighbors to know exactly how many eggs we’ve got in how many baskets. You’d be wrong. This culture of secrecy surrounding pay is fostered by employers to serve employers.

It goes like this. I’m hiring two people of equal qualifications for two equal positions. I offer Jill $35,000, a not-unreasonable offer for an entry-level post in this industry. She takes it. I offer Jack $35,000, but he demands $40,000, citing offers by competitors and his vast potential. I relent, thinking, well, Jill will never know.

A year later, when it comes time for the annual reviews, I give them commensurate bonuses. But because Jack’s base pay started higher, the gap in pay widens. And so on and so forth, until, at retirement, Jill has earned seven dollars to Jack’s 10, and must accept a lifestyle 70% as nice as his.

But for me, the employer, Jill was a bargain. I got the real thing at 30% off.

What would have happened if, at hiring time, Jack and Jill had shared the details of their offers? Or if I, the employer, had been forced to post it on an internal web site listing all salaries of all workers?

In reality, I’m not an employer; I’m not even a manager. Thus I’m in no position to expose other people’s salaries. And I’ve had mixed experiences when I’ve revealed mine. I once convinced two colleagues of the same rank and similar experience to ask for raises based on my (higher) salary. But I shared with a new colleague what I make (he asked), I saw his face twist in the horror of the wronged. He’s avoided me ever since, even though I’m quite sure he makes more than I do now.

The Supreme Court decision is egregious and wrong-headed, and the law about the 180-day time limit must be changed by Congress. But we can do something right now to help our fellow workers by busting up the conspiracy of silence on salaries.