On Thursday, Maryland became the latest state to protect a worker’s right to ask colleagues one of the most taboo questions in American society: How much money do you make?
With Gov. Larry Hogan's signature on the equal pay law, the state joined at least a dozen others that explicitly shield compensation-curious workers from employer retaliation. The move to boost pay transparency comes four months after President Obama laid out new rules that would require companies with more than 100 employees to report to the government salary data based on race, gender and ethnicity, drawing ire from some in the business community.
Advocates hope the simultaneous efforts pushing employers to scrutinize their own wage breakdowns — and guarding the employees who choose to discuss them — will help reduce pay disparities between white men, women and employees of color in similar jobs.
But a Point Taken-Marist Poll, published this month, shows an obstacle in moving past today’s culture of secrecy around pay. Americans just aren’t comfortable revealing what they earn — or, apparently, their companies’ pay ranges.
More than seven in 10 Americans do not think private companies should be required to publish employee salaries, either publicly or internally, the poll found. Two-thirds said they’d rather not disclose their personal income.
The answers differed across race and gender lines. More men than women would prefer firms keep pay numbers private (79 percent versus 67 percent.) And 63 percent of white respondents said releasing such numbers would create friction within companies, compared to 51 percent of non-white respondents. (The survey did not explore beyond these broad characteristics.)
Fewer than one-third of respondents would be okay with sharing their own salaries. Broken down, that’s 33 percent of men, 28 percent of women, 28 percent of white respondents and 34 percent of non-white respondents.
“Salary transparency is seen as a tactic to get salary equity,” said Denise DiIanni, senior executive in charge of content development at WGBH National Programming, which commissioned the survey. “So I figured we’d see 50-50. I was surprised we were still as private about salaries.”
Why people remain mum is a matter of speculation. Maybe they find it inappropriate to ask what has long been considered a highly personal question. Maybe they’re afraid to learn they’ve been making less than their friends at work and beyond.
The decision from businesses to withhold such information is obvious: Worker pay is a cost, and they want to keep costs down.
Just 538 adults nationwide answered the Point Taken-Marist questions, so this glimpse into the American psyche is rather tiny. And the question wording is at times confusing.
For instance, the first question was, “Should private companies be required to publish salaries, that is, make public the amount each employee earns, or should salaries remain private for most people?” Pollsters said that question was supposed to capture Americans’ opinions on employers releasing aggregate data, but it could be interpreted to mean: Should your company be able to make your earnings public?
Another survey from earlier this year, led by Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, also found Americans to be tight-lipped about their money but increasingly less so.
Most Millennials her team heard from, for example, didn’t feel comfortable sharing their salaries with co-workers. They were still more likely to pass around numbers than Generation X-ers or Baby Boomers: 38 percent of the younger cohort said they’d bring it up with colleagues, compared to 19 percent of older staffers.
Still, evidence that employees are discussing pay at all should be enough for employers to lift the curtains, Deal wrote in a Wall Street Journal column: “Recently some organizations have been perceived as discouraging staff from sharing information about pay, which actually caused even more staff to share pay information, and many to come to the conclusion that the leaders of the organization were trying to hide unfair compensation practices.”
This election cycle, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has called for increased pay transparency to give workers more negotiation power and narrow America’s wage gaps.
The Census Bureau estimates the median woman in the United States makes 79 cents for every dollar paid to the median man. The gap grows by race, with black women earning a comparative 60 cents and Hispanic women earning 55 cents.
Critics argue the figures are misleading. Economists say they’re just complicated, attributing portions of the gap to both career choices — college major, occupation and time off to raise families — and discrimination.
Charly Carter, executive director of Maryland Working Families, a group that pushed for Thursday’s measure, said learning to embrace transparency is a crucial step toward equality. Employers can spot injustices and correct them — Salesforce, for example, poured $3 million last year into fixing the company’s gender wage gap — and employees would be better equipped to ask for fair pay.
“The discomfort around transparency might come from people who have an advantage wanting to keep that advantage,” Carter said. “But we all do better when we all do better.”
That, she said, might start with an awkward question.
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