It was a feel-good moment but — I’m afraid — not much else. The smiles of victory were everywhere as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a pay equity bill last week that, among other things, forbids prospective employers from asking interviewees about their pay histories.
It was a testament to the abiding faith some people have that if we simply ban a practice that poses no immediate threat to anyone, people will stop doing it — or they will be too stupid to figure out a way around it.
State Rep. Derek Slap, the West Hartford Democrat who introduced the bill, brought his wife and two daughters along as props. He said he hated telling his daughters that they will be doomed to making less than men for the same work.
“This bill is going to change that,” Slap said. “It’s going to do something positive.”
And if you question the need for the legislation or — heaven forbid, actively oppose it — be prepared for the attacks. In response to resistance initially expressed more than a year ago by House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby (she later voted for it), Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, insisted in a news conference that the pushback can only be rooted in two things: “that’s the way we’ve always done it and bigotry. There is no other possible objection to this.” Well, it’s settled then. The highest ranking woman in the General Assembly must have been a hidebound anti-female bigot — before she was fortunate enough to be converted by the likes of Lesser.
In the abstract, it’s outrageous that women in Connecticut are paid 85 cents for every dollar a man makes. I, too, have a daughter — though I’m not sure I would trot her out at the Capitol for a presser — and the thought of her making less money than a man for the same work troubles me. But when you look a little deeper into the situation, you quickly see that the complacency and “bigotry” Rep. Lesser speaks of hardly tells the whole story.
There are lots of reasons for the pay gap. Some of them have to do with the choices women make. How many women major in music or education, which lead to relatively low-paying jobs, and how many major in engineering or statistics, majors that typically lead to a more lucrative career than teaching or playing in the symphony?
According to recent research published by Glassdoor Economic Research and examined in the Harvard Business Review, the difference in choice of majors between the sexes is considerable and has “a dramatic impact on jobs and pay in the years after graduation.”
Even in cases where men and women are being paid different wages for the same work, there is strong evidence that it’s more a result of the so-called “child-bearing penalty” than anything else. Taking time off to give birth and raise children — or going on the so-called “mommy track” — will set your career back, both in terms of seniority and also lost contacts. If your contention is that traditional family roles penalize women in the workplace, you’re right, but that’s an entirely different conversation.
As for the Connecticut pay-equity law’s prohibition on asking candidates about their salary history, I’m skeptical about whether it will accomplish much of anything. I’ve applied for scores of jobs over the years and I can only recall once being asked about my “salary history.” Was I seldom asked that question because I’m a man? Well, you’d think an interviewer would like see the salary history of any applicant because in a negotiation over compensation, you don’t want to be the first to offer up a number.
The other option you have when asked about salary history is to simply lie. And of course, the new law will not prevent a future employer from asking about salary expectations — though I’m sure there are some who would like to ban that practice, too.
I’ve interviewed dozens of applicants for jobs and it’s essential that a promising candidate is asked what salary range s/he would find acceptable. Otherwise you could be wasting your time and the applicant’s. That brings us to another issue that could impact wage differences between the sexes: women are less likely than men to negotiate for maximum salaries, though it’s not clear whether that reticence stems from a lack of confidence or because the “social cost” for negotiation is higher for women.
At any rate, at the Capitol it’s too much to demand evidence that proposed legislation will work on a practical level or that it’s actually needed in the first place. If it makes us feel good, then it’s something to celebrate.
And if it’s chief sponsors failed in an election year to deliver on other important legislation affecting women (the $15 minimum wage, paid family-medical leave, and the reform of sexual harassment laws), then celebrate we must.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at email@example.com.
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