At this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner, comedian Joel McHale joked that no job is exempt from pay disparity, observing that "as our first female president, we could pay [Hillary Clinton] 30 percent less." The gender wage gap—a term broadly used to describe the fact that American women to continue to make only 77 cents to every dollar earned by American men—has captured the nation's attention.
While some lawmakers have tried to blame these shocking figures on the fact that men simply work harder than women (see recent comments by New Hampshire state Rep. Will Infantine), working women around the country who are being paid less know that this simply isn't the case. Last year, on the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, Equal Rights Advocates and other leading women's rights organizations launched the Equal Pay Today! Campaign to tackle this persistent gap that plagues nearly every industry in the country. Through this campaign, and in fielding calls to our Advice and Counseling Hotline, we''e heard from women across the country who suspect they are being paid less, but wonder, "How do I know for sure?"
In her powerful dissent to the Supreme Court's misguided Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized that pay discrimination is very often "hidden from sight." She wrote that because salary information about fellow workers is typically confidential and unavailable for comparison, pay disparities can be hard to discover. Indeed, a 2011 study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research found that over 61 percent of private-sector workers say that discussing their salary is either prohibited or discouraged. Pay secrecy policies are often accompanied by an understanding—explicit or unspoken—that discussing or inquiring about pay could lead to negative job consequences. Ultimately, a lack of information about what their male coworkers are paid, and a fear being punished for asking about it, prevent women from ever even finding out that they're victims of pay discrimination. This culture of silence and fear is even more harmful in low-wage sectors, where workers can't afford to risk their jobs by asking about pay.
Equal Rights Advocates client Lucy Marsh learned after 40 years as a celebrated law professor at University of Denver Sturm College of the Law that she and other female professors earned less than male professors with similar qualifications. Pay rate information would have alerted Professor Marsh to this inequity years and possibly decades ago, preventing significant financial losses over the course of her career. Recent studies suggest that the lifetime wage gap for a woman with at least a bachelor's degree is $723,000, while professional school graduates lose $2 million in wages over a lifetime.
We know that pay secrecy directly undermines efforts to reduce the gender wage gap. And we know that we can do something about it. In fact, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which Senate Republicans blocked just last month, would prohibit retaliation against employees who share their salary information with each other, eliminating the culture of silence that keeps women like Professor Marsh from ever finding out they're being paid unfairly.
In addition to federal law protection of all employees, we need workplaces that encourage transparency and support openness about pay. How that might look depends on the nature of the employer—for example, in a large company, employers could easily provide anonymized salary information with job titles and gender breakdown to let employees know where they stand.
What's certain is that successfully ending the gender wage gap will take a combination of legal protections and action by employers dedicated to solving this problem. Don't you think we should be allowed to talk pay?
Joelle Emerson is a Skadden Fellow at Equal Rights Advocates.
Stay In The Know
Marie Claire email subscribers get intel on fashion and beauty trends, hot-off-the-press celebrity news, and more. Sign up here.
Kylie Jenner's Peep-Toe Boots Kick Off the Polarizing Spring Shoe Trend
These boots were made for walkin'—and showing off your pedicure.
By Aaron Royce
Machine Gun Kelly Is No Longer Going By Machine Gun Kelly
The change comes after some fans claimed the name glorified firearms.
By Meghan De Maria
Prince William Accepts Gifts for Kate Middleton As Health Rumors Swirl
William attended two more public events this week, without his wife in sight.
By Meghan De Maria
Confronting Unequal Pay: A 10-Step Guide for Women—and Their Allies—to Fight Wage Discrimination
Black Women’s Equal Pay Day is not a celebration. My hope is that if we all continue to ask for what we want, we chip away at that wage gap, one Black woman—and ally—at a time.
By Minda Harts
Peloton’s Selena Samuela on Turning Tragedy Into Strength
Before becoming a powerhouse cycling instructor, Selena Samuela was an immigrant trying to adjust to new environments and new versions of herself.
By Emily Tisch Sussman
This Mutual Fund Firm Is Helping to Create a More Sustainable Future
Amy Domini and her firm, Domini Impact Investments LLC, are inspiring a greater and greener world—one investor at a time.
Power Players Build on Success
"The New Normal" left some brands stronger than ever. We asked then what lies ahead.
By Maria Ricapito
Don't Stress! You Can Get in Good Shape Money-wise
Yes, maybe you eat paleo and have mastered crow pose, but do you practice financial wellness?
By Sallie Krawcheck
The Book Club Revolution
Lots of women are voracious readers. Other women are capitalizing on that.
By Lily Herman
The Future of Women and Work
The pandemic has completely upended how we do our jobs. This is Marie Claire's guide to navigating your career in a COVID-19 world.
By Megan DiTrolio
Black-Owned Coworking Spaces Are Providing a Safe Haven for POC
For people of color, many of whom prefer to WFH, inclusive coworking spaces don't just offer a place to work—they cultivate community.
By Megan DiTrolio