There has been some interesting news lately on the gender-pay-gap front:
- California passed a law that goes further than any other state to close it.
- British lawmakers are trying to combat it with a proposal to collect and distribute bonus data by gender.
- Jennifer Lawrence wrote a scathing essay about pay inequality in Hollywood.
- Her sometime co-star Bradley Cooper decided to take a stand by sharing his salary information with female counterparts.
- NBA cheerleaders are suing over it.
- Presidential contenders are talking about it.
- A feminist TED Talker came up with an interesting solution for it.
And so on.
It’s a positive sign that politicians, movie stars, cheerleaders and thinkfluencers are bringing the issue to the cultural forefront. But what’s an ordinary employee to do if it seems there’s gender-based pay discrimination in the workplace? Can women ask their male co-workers what they earn without fear of repercussion? Can men tell their female co-workers what they earn without repercussion or without it…being weird? And would openly discussing pay with other workers really change anything?
One thing California’s new law did was to make it explicitly OK for workers to discuss wages with one another. There’s also a federal law called the National Labor Relations Act that’s supposed to protect workers in any state who want to discuss their own pay, but it is flawed to the point where employers flagrantly disobey it without fear of reprisal.
First, it’s difficult for an individual employee to use the NLRA as a shield because its purpose was related to unionization. Even if workers collectively take action, and win, the remedies offered by the law aren’t great. And because it’s aimed at protecting groups of workers at the bottom of the pyramid, it doesn’t cover anyone in a managerial role who feels she is being shafted by her employer. (Or people who work for airlines, or “independent contractors”–a.k.a. freelancers.)
“The NRLA only applies to ‘non-supervisory employees’ and it’s not very user-friendly,” says Ariane Hegewisch, a pay secrecy expert at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “You can’t just walk into your local [fair pay office] to claim discrimination, it doesn’t cover everybody and it doesn’t have very good remedies.”
Hegewisch says the best strategy for ordinary workers to combat the gender pay gap is to speak with colleagues about the topic and align with those who feel similarly. It’s also a good idea to open up a dialogue with supervisors by asking where your pay stands, broadly, compared with other workers, she said.
But these are delicate lines to toe. While an employee is legally free to discuss her own pay, she isn’t legally free to cajole others into doing so. Perhaps even more importantly, talking about one’s salary or bonus with coworkers is still a big cultural taboo. Making coworkers feel uncomfortable is not a great way to get them to help fight for equal pay.
And even though employers may not be legally justified in shutting down discussion about the topic, they may not welcome it. In fact, some employers ask employees to sign confidentiality agreements regarding pay, because the consequence of violating the NLRA—if there are consequences at all—is effectively a slap on the wrist, says Emily Martin, general counsel of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington.
“Frankly, the problem is, it’s not that big of a penalty if an employer violates the NLRA, so some employers don’t worry about it much,” she says. “Employers say it’s not that expensive or difficult to deal with, so it’s not that uncommon for employers to have explicit pay secrecy policies where you can’t talk about wages and if you do, you’re subject to discipline.”
The cheerleader lawsuits are a good example of how getting sued for unfair pay practices is viewed as just the cost of doing business. The lawsuits are related to minimum wage laws, not discrimination laws, but it’s hard to look at the gap between the millions of dollars male players earned and the $3-to-$5 per hour female cheerleaders say they earned and not see gender casting an overwhelming shadow over the proceedings. Previous lawsuits resulted in teams paying settlements in the thousands of dollars, according to the New York Times.
As lawsuits are fought and new laws grind their way through the system, labor experts and advocates say it’s important for workers to start opening up a dialogue about pay themselves, in a sensitive way. Because men have disproportionate power in the workplace as earners and managers, it’s especially important that they are involved in the dialogue—if not for themselves or the idea of an equal workplace, then for their mothers, daughters, wives and other close female family members and friends.
As Martin puts it, “one should probably avoid going around with a megaphone talking about other people’s salaries,” but “it is important to talk more openly about wages in the workplace because, without those conversations it’s hard to close the gap.”