Why shouldn’t women be allowed to talk about wages with their co-workers? (Guest Post: Liz Waggoner)

Liz Waggoner

Liz Waggoner is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition, the state’s leading advocacy organization for women and girls.

You might have missed it, but April 10th was Equal Pay Day in the United States.  Equal Pay Day indicates how far into the current year women must work to earn what men made in the previous year; in other words, women must work for 15 and half months to earn what a man earns in 12 months. This day exists because the gender wage gap is still a reality – in Oklahoma, women working full-time, year round earn just 77 percent of what men earn. Though multiple factors contribute to gender pay disparities, one of the reasons women make less than men is wage discrimination – employers paying women less than their male colleagues for the same job. It’s been illegal since 1963, but it can happen easily when wage and pay information is a secret.

Wage discrimination happens, and pay secrecy makes it possible

If asked, most of us would say that discrimination against women in the workplace is wrong and unacceptable. Unfortunately, research shows that treating women and men equally in hiring decisions, job evaluations, and leadership positions is more of an ideal than a reality. If we agree that workplace discrimination against women is wrong, why is it still happening? One answer is that all people harbor unconscious bias that can affect their judgment, even though they may be unaware of these beliefs or tendencies. Hiring managers may skip over women or offer them lower wages based on those unconscious biases by, for example, unwittingly relying on generalizations about women not being as committed to their work because they have children to care for.  Uncovering these biases is an absolutely necessary step to eliminating them. But in order to do that we must have conversations that can be uncomfortable or difficult and we must acknowledge that unconscious bias has impacted women in the workplace – an impact that has resulted in the very real wage gap in Oklahoma.

Analysis shows that 62 percent of the wage gap can be attributed to occupational and industry differences; differences in experience and education; and factors such as race, region and unionization. That leaves 38 percent of the gap unaccounted for, leading researchers to conclude that factors such as discrimination and unconscious bias continue to impact women’s wages. The wage gap can be even larger for women of color. Among Oklahoma’s women who hold full-time, year-round jobs, African American women are paid 63 cents, Latinas are paid 54 cents and Asian women are paid 65 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.

Even when women suspect they are being paid less than their male co-workers for the same work – and even if they know for certain – there is often little they can do.  How can you prove you’re being paid less if you can’t find out what others are being paid? In Oklahoma, a worker can be terminated for any reason – including asking your co-workers about their pay or telling a co-worker about yours. And employers are not required to share salary data with their workers. So it can be nearly impossible to prove that wage discrimination is happening.

Pay transparency in Oklahoma is a difficult fight

Pay transparency is a simple and proven component in the effort to reduce the wage gap; if there are fewer secrets surrounding salaries, it becomes much easier to recognize and challenge pay inequities if they arise. That’s better for workers in terms of fairness, and it protects employers from potential lawsuits.

For the last four years, advocates of pay transparency in Oklahoma have introduced legislation which would strengthen our state’s existing equal pay law by providing a pathway for women to advocate for themselves in the workplace. Despite increased bipartisan support and momentum, this year’s pay transparency effort – HB 1530 authored by Rep. Jason Dunnington (D-Oklahoma City) and Senator Stephanie Bice (R-Edmond) – failed in the Senate Business, Commerce and Tourism Committee with a 4-5 vote due to concerns regarding perceived consequences for small businesses.

As evidenced by opposition to this bill and its predecessors, there seems to be a misunderstanding regarding the facts of pay transparency and what implementation of this legislation would actually do. HB 1530 would have minimized pay secrecy by allowing employees to disclose their own wages or inquire regarding a co-worker’s wages without retaliation or punishment. It also would have adjusted for inflation the fines for employers who violate existing equal pay law, fines which have not been updated since 1965. HB 1530 would not have mandated women be paid equally to their male counterparts, nor would it have required open or public salary records for all employees. Put simply, it would have made it easier for women to find out if they are being paid less than men for the same work.

The wage gap effects more than just women

Pay transparency and closing the wage gap are much more than just points of pride. The percentage of women who serve as sole breadwinner in households with children under the age of 18 in the home totals 40 percent nationally. In Oklahoma this translates into 175,556 households that are headed by women. Income lost to the wage gap means families have less money to spend on basic goods and services – spending that helps drive the local economy. Eliminating the wage gap would provide much-needed income and opportunity to women whose wages sustain their households.

Discrimination against women in the workplace – whether unconscious or not – has been commonplace for far too long. In order for Oklahoma to improve our dismal national rankings and become a competitive leader in business, education and opportunity, we must support a comprehensive and intentional effort to eliminating the wage gap, one which includes pay transparency. We must make Oklahoma a state where women’s capabilities, efforts, talents, and voices are equally valued and fairly compensated. Our daughters and granddaughters are counting on us.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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