On Equal Pay Day, Activists Push For Radical Salary Transparency

More than awareness is needed to address the long-running gender and racial pay gap

Photo Illustration: Vocativ
Apr 04, 2017 at 8:43 AM ET

The 22nd annual Equal Pay Day is upon us, reminding women yet again that widespread awareness of a societal problem doesn’t translate to solving it. More than 50 years following passage of the Equal Pay Act, the U.S. still trails behind 44 countries in pay equity, according to the World Economic Forum, and will not reach gender parity until 2059 at this rate.

Every year, the “holiday” is scheduled to put a point on the gender pay gap, roughly reflecting how many extra days it would take an average woman to earn what a man made the year prior. The latest data shows that, across the board in the fourth quarter of 2016, women made at least 7 percent less than men in their same racial and ethnic category.

Of course, the wage gap is about more than just gender. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Asian men and women in the U.S. have the highest median weekly earnings, immediately followed by white men (the largest share of the labor force) and white women. Median earnings of Hispanic or Latino Americans were the lowest among all Americans. And Black Women’s Equal Pay Day won’t be held until August this year (black women usually mark the occasion by walking out of work at 2:07 PM, the point in the work day at which white men earn what they do in a full day).

Some advocates think it’s time for more radical change and have more recently called for salary transparency, in which either employers or employees themselves share what they earn. If everyone knows how much their coworkers make, the idea is that employers will feel more pressure to ensure equity and women will in a better position to negotiate.

To this end, Tracy Sturdivant, co-founder and co-executive director of the workplace advocacy group Make It Work, has proposed a public database of salary data broken out by race and gender that accounts for specific employers rather than generic industries. This, she said, would help workers hold their employers accountable for discrepancies (such as inadvertently happened after Hollywood salaries were revealed in the Sony email hack and actress Charlize Theron negotiated better pay as a result).

“We like to say that sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Sturdivant told Vocativ. “It shouldn’t have to take a hack or a handwritten note to have transparency around your ability to negotiate.”

This kind of approach has also made headway in Germany, and Iceland is now considering government-backed audits to ensure equal pay.

However, within the U.S., these movements have faced hurdles. The Paycheck Fairness Act failed to generate enough support in Congress and a Department of Labor push for companies larger than 99 employees to report transparent salary data in 2017 is currently facing challenges from a coalition of business associations. With President Donald Trump wishy-washy in his views on equal pay, it’s tough to say whether this movement will find necessary support at the federal level.

Without cooperation from the government or the companies themselves, other activists have pushed for workers to voluntarily discuss their salaries. But this is hardly a realistic alternative, since few protections exist to stop employer retaliation against a worker who shares their salary.

However, there is some evidence that the practice can work. One Google employee claims that her salary crowdsourcing effort did lead to more equitable pay for some of her coworkers. And when businesses take it upon themselves to self-police, like the tech company Salesforce did in 2015 after female employees pushed for it, gaps can be easily identified and quickly closed.

“We’re starting to see a shift,” Sturdivant said, referencing the recent hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork, which many used to address discrimination and inequality. “A lot of the stories were about equal pay and the pay gap. And that’s really unique. Usually folks don’t talk about money, especially online. More people are interested in having conversations about inequality, and that’s exciting.”