Study Finds Job Interview Question May Perpetuate Wage Gap

Published: Tuesday, June 12, 2018 - 10:30am
Updated: Thursday, June 14, 2018 - 11:53am
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LAUREN GILGER: Women in this country still make on average 80 cents on the dollar that men make for the same work. For women of color, that disparity is even more drastic. Deborah Vagins with the American Association of University Women says her organization has looked at this issue from every angle, controlling for things like age, education level and time out of school. Even then, they still find a 7 percent wage gap on average one year after graduation.

DEBORAH VAGINS: So that shows that, on average, women in America face a very large pay gap and it starts very early in their careers.

GILGER: And it turns out one seemingly innocuous question on many job applications isn't helping: "How much did you make in your last job?" According to Vagins, that question perpetuates the problem. I spoke with her more about that and how some states are working to ban it altogether.

VAGINS: If women's wages are tainted by discrimination in an earlier job, then if a new employer sets her salary using that prior wage, the taint of that discrimination carries forward and it carries forward from job to job, even when you have well-intentioned employers.

GILGER: So does this affect some women more than others?

VAGINS: The research is across women's salaries generally. But certainly, if you are in a lower-wage occupation, then continuing to base your salary on your prior salary perpetuates that low wage.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. So I know there are efforts in some states to change this, to ban it, in fact. What do those look like?

VAGINS: Sure. So there is work at the federal and state level on trying to ban the use of prior salary history. So at the federal level, there are two pieces of legislation. One is called the Paycheck Fairness Act. That is a comprehensive pay equity bill that updates the Equal Pay Act of 1963. But we've learned a lot about how discrimination operates in the workplace since 1963, so the Paycheck Fairness Act would update it, give women new tools to close the gap, including a ban on the use of prior salary history. So there's that federal legislation. There's also the Pay Equity for All Act, which is a piece of federal legislation directed just at banning prior salary history. Then there's also efforts afoot in the state. So Massachusetts was the first state to pass a salary history ban in 2016. Now we've got California and Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, Vermont and Hawaii, and Puerto Rico as well, and there's also Executive Orders that cover state agencies, so New Jersey and New York and just Pennsylvania. Arizona actually introduced a salary history ban in 2018, but it didn't progress at all, unfortunately.

GILGER: Okay, okay. What about in the court? Has this practice been challenged legally?

VAGINS: It has been challenged in the courts. So most recently, there was a victory in the Ninth Circuit, under the Equal Pay Act. So Aileen Rizo, who was a math consultant in Fresno, California, was being paid differently than her male peers. In fact, she had more experience than some of her male peers and the county said that she got paid less because she was paid less in her prior job, and that is how they defended the wage differentials between her and her male colleagues. She challenged it. She brought it all the way up to the Ninth Circuit, and the Ninth Circuit agreed with her. They said you cannot use prior salary history to pay men and women differently because that would basically undermine the entire intent of the Equal Pay Act. So it is being challenged in court. I don't think we should rely on that, however, because not all courts are finding similarly, so we've got a patchwork of laws related to this and a patchwork of court decisions, and what's particularly important is that women know their rights and employers know their obligations. So passing a uniform law would be incredibly important.

GILGER: So what do you think, then, employers should do in the meantime? Like, how could they stop this from happening? Just not ask the question?

VAGINS: I think the best thing for employers to do is stop asking the question, but they should do their homework. They should do the market research about what the job entails, what the proper salary range is, and they should peg the salary to the job and not the gender.

GILGER: So up until then, if employers change or if these laws continue to pass, or if there's some blanket law, what would you advise a woman to do? Like, if you're a woman and you go into a job interview or you're in that interview process and a potential employer asks you this question in person or on a form, do you say "I'm not going to answer?".

VAGINS: The problem is that if you leave things blank or if you don't answer them, it could be used against you. However, what we recommend is that women try to pivot from the question, they ask more questions, they try to talk about their credentials and their prior work history. It's important that you know your rights when you go into that particular interview because different jurisdictions have different laws, and you should know your market value for the job, and so you can certainly talk about all of that. So unfortunately, until we pass a federal law, women still may be answering this, but there are other ways to interview.

GILGER: Alright. Deborah Vagins, thank you so much for joining us to talk to us about this.

VAGINS: Thank you.

GILGER: Deborah Vagins is the senior vice president of Public Policy and Research at the American Association of University Women, talking about the wage gap in America.

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