The Devil's Advocate | Speaking of salaries


The Devil’s Advocate | Don’t ask, don’t tell is a lousy policy if we want fair wages




T he very first act President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was designed to correct a failing of previous pay equality legislation that prevented women from filing anti-discrimination claims more than 180 days after the discriminatory decision had been made. To me, this provision seems fairly straightforward and uncontroversial, but the vote split along party lines with a very few exceptions. Why the opposition?

Jump ahead to April 8, 2014, when National Equal Pay Day memorialized President Kennedy’s original signing of the Equal Pay Act of 1963. On this day earlier this month, Congress attempted to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was intended to address potential causes of the national gender pay gap. The bill included provisions requiring employers to prove that wage discrepancies were based on bona fide business interests rather than gender.

Republicans in the Senate ultimately blocked the bill for the second time.

I’ve never understood how someone can argue against this bill in sound mind or conscience. Some argue that the bill does more to help litigators than women in general, a poor argument which could apply equally to any anti-discrimination laws. Others say, leave it to the free market to set wages.

Expressing a more extreme position, anti-feminist “family values” crusader Phyllis Schlafly argued in a Christian Post op-ed that since women apparently prefer to marry men who earn more than they do, “if [the pay gap were magically closed], simple arithmetic suggests that half of women would be unable to find what they regard as a suitable mate.” Thus, she apparently argues, fair pay for women would destroy whatever remained of the institution of marriage after the gays got to it.

If anyone can provide me a more compelling problem with the legislation, I would love to hear it.

Until then, I’m more interested in a less advertised provision of the bill: a prohibition on “retaliation for inquiring about, discussing or disclosing the wages of the employee or another employee.”

This brought to my attention an aspect of pay discrimination we rarely acknowledge: our silent complicity.

Especially in North America, we have a deeply ingrained taboo against discussing salary with co-workers . The Internet is saturated with advice against sharing compensation details with anyone.

But when it comes to the why, almost inevitably the justification for secrecy is you may inadvertently discover you make more or less than your neighbor. The argument goes that pay differences engender jealousy and strain workplace relationships, so best to keep it all to ourselves for the sake of civility.

I disagree. When we deal with uncomfortable truths by actively avoiding evidence, that is a form of willful ignorance. I abhor willful ignorance out of principle, but this behavior also causes demonstrable harm to all participants. By discouraging sharing of salaries, we make discrimination much harder to discover. We are burying our heads in the sand.

Also, by not sharing this information we handicap ourselves when it comes to dealing with employers. Companies have a strong incentive to keep salaries secret in order to maintain an edge at the negotiation table. Employers have enough power without employees handing them more.

I find it particularly perplexing that even millennials who grew up surrounded by social media still adhere to this classic prohibition. We willingly abandon our privacy when it comes to relationships, hardships, hookups and every inane inner thought we think should grace our Facebook and Twitter feeds, yet we still show a reluctance to discuss salaries. Why have we collectively determined that this one element of our lives deserves unique protection from prying eyes?

I realize this taboo is not easy to overcome. In America, we unfortunately tie our sense of self-worth and achievement into our work, so we often hold our salaries like a closely guarded personal secret. Sometimes we fear exposing our egos to damage when our neighbor out-earns us, while in more empathetic moods we wish to prevent our neighbors’ embarrassment when the roles are reversed.

But for our own good, we need to move past this simplistic view of human worth as earning potential. We are so much more than what we make.

Collin Boots  is a master’s student studying robotics from Redwood Falls, Minn. Email him at cboots@seas.upenn.edu or follow him @LotofTinyRobots.

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