How Banning The Salary History Question Can Help Fight The Wage Gap

There's a line of questioning that we've become used to when applying for a job — but if current trends continue, one of these commonly encountered questions could be done away with all together: A new measure passed in New York City bans asking about salary history during the job application process, and the systemic change is a positively encouraging step forward in combatting the issue of the gender wage gap.

Public advocate Letitia James was the one who proposed the measure, according to NBC News, since in New York City alone, the wage gap costs women $5.8 billion every single year. Bandaging the issue won't change the cause of the problem, so James went after its roots. While the ban already covered public sector jobs, the recent measure now applies to the private sector as well.

Why are questions about salary history such a problem, especially for women? As Science of Us notes, the issue can be explained with something called "anchoring": a cognitive bias which means that potential employers will use your salary history to determine what they should pay you, even if your history doesn't properly reflect what you should get paid for the position you're applying for. If you indicate that your previous position paid you $35,000 a year, a potential employer can "anchor" on to that, paying you the same (or close to), regardless of your responsibilities.

Since raises and bonuses are frequently based on your salary, those too will be affected. Toss in the gender wage gap and how, at best, women make roughly 79 percent of what men make (and I say "at best" because the 79 percent statistic just applies to white women; for women of color, the numbers are much, much lower), and we've got a big issue on our hands. It's easy to see, then, how one not-so-great salary from your early years of employment could damn you for years to come. (Some potential employers ask for salary expectations before you can even get an interview, putting even more pressure on an applicant.)

Isn't it assumed that you should make more money as you progress in your career, as you grow your skill set and increase your value to a company? What if you go back to school and get another degree? Why should you be paid the same as before? Instead, we should be looking at experience, skills, and what the market pays for that position — regardless of salary history, and certainly regardless of gender, race, disability status, LGBTQ status, and more.

New York City isn't the only place looking to reduce the gender wage gap. Massachusetts first got the ball rolling in 2016; since then, around 20 more states have jumped on the bandwagon, including California, Philadelphia, and New Orleans.

So, even though members of our current administration don't seem too concerned with gender equality, there is reason for hope. Since 2016, at least 180 bills have been introduced by state lawmakers all over the country with the goal of diminishing the gender pay gap. Of these, seven were enacted and dozens are pending. (Almost 50 failed or were vetoed.) One year earlier, 76 bills related to equal pay were introduced in 33 states.

But that's not all. Last year, states including Delaware, Maryland, and Connecticut strengthened laws that prohibit bosses from punishing employees who talk about their wages with each other. As of this year, 17 states have pay secrecy laws, which protect workers who want to discuss pay with each other. This is yet another promising move for employees — because when you prohibit them from discussing pay, you're essentially taking away their voices and the option to challenge discrimination, which can only make the pay gap worse.

There's more good news for smaller businesses across the country, where the wage gap has traditionally been even worse. Nebraska, for example, has widened its equal pay protections to include businesses that have at least two employees per day. Prior, it only applied to businesses with over 15 employees.

If you live someplace where the gender wage gap is still a glaring issue that remains largely unaddressed, there are little things you can do to better your chances of receiving something closer to the pay you've earned. If a low anchor can worsen your chances of a good paycheck, could balancing it with a high anchor improve on the issue? Yes, according to some research. One study found that if you offer an outrageously high anchor (even as just a joke), it can result in better compensation at a new job. Of course, you then want to be careful not to push it too much; and you certainly shouldn't lie, as potential employers have ways of verifying your salary history.

Another helpful tactic to employ is using a range of numbers when discussing salary expectations. Anchoring says that an employer will latch on to your salary history and likely offer you the same. If you offer a range, they are less likely to go straight to the lowest number and ignore the highest. Instead, both anchors — the low and the high — influence their offer, and they are more likely to stay above the lowest number you give, compared to if you were to just offer that one number.

The fight's not nearly over, and we've got a long way to go. There are still people who deny that a pay gap even exists. But one thing is for certain: More and more people are refusing to take this lying down, and equal pay is garnering a growing support system.