Paying women less than men is not only unfair but counterproductive. Women and men alike prefer to work for - and work harder for - companies that pay equally. Yet women who hold down the same jobs as men, with the same qualifications, still generally earn less.
So it makes sense to continue to try to close the gap. But one effort that’s becoming popular in some cities is heavy-handed: prohibiting companies from asking job applicants about their previous salaries. That’s the law in Philadelphia, Puerto Rico and Massachusetts, and legislation is under consideration in many more states, cities and Congress.
Such salary questions, the thinking goes, keep the pay gap alive, by ensuring that when a woman changes jobs, her unequal paycheck will follow her. If prospective employers can’t ask anyone what they used to make, then they have no choice but to pay according to what the job warrants.
There’s no data, however, to suggest that a question ban will make such a difference. It’s policymaking by anecdote, driven by politicians eager to say they have taken action.
There is real danger, on the other hand, that such a ban could backfire. If employers are legally barred from asking about salary, they might instead guess at what an applicant earns - and guess lower if that person is female. That would seem especially likely if applicants who already earn top dollar routinely volunteer the information.
By restricting what company representatives can say, the laws also raise free-speech issues. It’s not clear that they would violate the First Amendment, but the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce aims to have that question answered in court. And it’s all too clear that too many restrictions on what employers can ask job applicants would be counterproductive.
Perhaps a better question is, why impose on employers a new requirement without showing that it would narrow the wage gap? Federal law already prohibits gender-based pay discrimination, and employers cannot get around that by calculating workers’ salaries according to what they used to earn. Another better question, if the issue is making the workplace more equal, is how to provide women more opportunity - which may be an even bigger problem than the narrowing (if stubborn) pay gap.
Many companies are already making efforts to audit and make more transparent their own pay practices, and many are voluntarily dispensing with salary questions to job applicants. Policing what employers can and cannot say in job interviews is not the best way to encourage other employers to follow suit.