Asking women about their salary history in job interviews perpetuates the disparity in pay between men and women. Since women typically earn less then men, using their previous wages as a starting point puts them at a disadvantage when negotiating a new salary.
It’s the theory behind new laws in cities and states like New York City and Massachusetts banning potential employers from asking about salary history during the hiring process, and why advocates for equal pay encourage women not to disclose their previous pay.
But a new study from PayScale suggests that women are also punished when they refuse to reveal their salary history. The website, which houses a salary database, polled 15,413 job seekers about their responses to questions about their previous salary, Lydia Frank, a PayScale executive, wrote in the Harvard Business Review.
When women refused to reveal their prior pay, they received an offer 1.8% lower than women applying for a similar job at the same company who did disclose previous pay. When men refused, the opposite happened: they got an offer 1.2% higher.
So what gives?
Frank theorizes the women who don’t disclose their previous salaries are punished for bargaining. As demonstrated by Carnegie Mellon University economist Linda Babcock, women pay a price when they negotiate, because it conflicts with society’s expectations about how women are supposed to behave. “Women are penalized more than men for negotiating,” Babcock told NPR in 2007. “People are less likely to like them; if they negotiate in a job interview, they are less likely to hire them. There are real social sanctions that occur when women initiate negotiations.”
When women refuse to fall in line with the interviewers’ questions about previous salary, they’re signaling they intend to negotiate, triggering a negative response, Frank suggests. Employers may also make assumptions about their prior salary, based on their gender. Men pay no social price for bargaining, and their refusal to provide a prior salary wasn’t taken as evidence of a lower salary.
Frank urges employers not to ask, which removes the onus from the job seeker and eliminates a potentially contentious issue from the interview. If employers need to know if they can afford the candidate, Frank recommends asking for salary expectations rather than salary history, or providing a range for the job they’re hiring for and allowing the candidate to respond.
For female job seekers who are asked, there’s no obvious right answer. Refusing can set the tone for a tougher negotiation, while answering can lead to a low-ball opening offer. One solution could be to explain the context for refusing: By pointing out how the question is often used against female candidates, job seekers may be able to sidestep it without it triggering a negative reaction.