Salary Secrecy Perpetuates The Wage Gap

Image: Kittikun Atsawintarangkul (

One thing that continues to baffle me is how secretive the majority of us are about our salaries. Yes, I understand that it is not an appropriate topic to discuss amongst polite company – I totally get that with regard to conversations outside of work. But in the workplace, wouldn’t transparency regarding salaries help to keep all of us honest – employer and employee alike?  There would be less cause to worry about being shortchanged due to gender, race, marital status, parental status, and sexual orientation. Theoretically, we could be reassured that our pay would be directly commensurate with our performance.

I became even more convinced about this position after learning about a recent study regarding pay for women.

It is widely known that the gender wage gap has women earning 77 cents to every dollar their male counterparts make (according to census data).  Many of us have suspected that there is an even deeper discrepancy in wages when comparing the pay of working non-mothers with that of working mothers, but I have not been aware of any solid proof of these wage differences.  That is, until I learnt of a recent study, co-authored by Kate Krause, an economy professor from the University of New Mexico, that found that women who have children now earn 7 to 14 percent less than women who do not have children.

As a society, we have embraced any number of reasons for this discrepancy – mothers tend to opt out of full-time work, they stop trying to climb the corporate ladder, or they begin to accept positions below their skill set, etc.  But what if the commonly accepted reasons do not fully account for the pay discrepancies? 

I was particularly interested to learn that the study accounted for these sort of factors, and controlled for them in a statistical way, but the gap remained.  In an interview with Michelle Martin on NPR, Krause said that differences in education and occupation, and other neutral decisions a woman might make explain only about half of the gap. And timing of return to work after delivery explains a big part of the gap, but a portion of the gap remains unaccounted for.

Some, like Dina Bakst, cofounder of A Better Balance, believe that the remaining gap is due in large part to discrimination against mothers.  I tend to agree. Just last month, a friend of mine told me that when his boss found out that one of his subordinates was pregnant, he commented that, “Oh, I thought she said she wanted to advance her career.”  Clearly, the implication was that this would not be possible now that she was pregnant – at least not on his watch! He said this despite the fact that he had previously been unsupportive of her efforts to advance anyway.

Stories like this abound.  As Bakst stated in the NPR interview, there is a “much more subtle stereotyping about new mothers’ competence and commitment that’s going on in the workplace. We often see women returning from maternity leave who are given less work or dead-end assignments. This type of discrimination drags down wages for women because they get off track, or even worse off, and pushed out of the workforce.”

So now that we are armed with this new information, what are we to do with it?  Working Mother Magazine developed a list based on expert recommendations.  You can find it here.

However, even if one were to implement such suggestions, I maintain that for real change to happen, we must embrace salary transparency in the workplace.  I couldn’t agree more with Bakst, who stated:

“We need to look at what our public policies can do to catch up with the realities of the modern workforce. First of all, we need to head-on address unfair pay in the workforce and strengthen our equal pay laws. There’s still a blanket of secrecy in this country around pay, and workers are penalized for sharing salary information. And, you know, we can’t enforce our equal pay laws in a vacuum, so it’s critically important that we open up and people can understand if they’re being paid fairly or not.”

Do you think that sharing pay information in the workplace would help to close the wage gap?  If not, why do you think that salaries should remain secret?

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2 Responses to Salary Secrecy Perpetuates The Wage Gap

  1. Shinji says:

    It would maybe help. However, it may also generate tensions among same-gender employees having different wages. In the public sector, for example, this is common practice. But where, as in the private sector, wages are established on a personal basis, this is more difficult. Moreover, the main issue about salary gap is that men are most likely promoted to higher positions than women.

    • Thanks for visiting Shinji. I agree that it may create tensions, but in my opinion it would be preferable to have some tension among same-gender employees who at least know that they are being fairly paid (or at least have data to make a case for themselves), than tension due to believing that one is underpaid, but having little/no data to prove it. I think that transparency would help to curb the wage gap arising due to gender as well as that arising due to parental status. I agree though, that the issue regarding preferential promotion of males would likely continue.

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