What the Salary History Question Means for Women

What the Salary History Question Means for Women

We've covered a lot of tough job-interview issues. But there's one that still trips us up: the salary history question. Though several states and cities have banned it, 43% of people still get asked what they made at their previous job, according to a study released this morning by PayScale.

It's hard to know how to respond; do you answer directly and box yourself into a smaller salary range, or sidestep and make things awkward? It turns out, it's even harder if you're a woman.

The study found that a woman who declines to disclose her salary history when asked is paid 1.8% less on average than a woman who complies. Meanwhile, a man who refuses to disclose his salary history is paid 1.2% more.

It's no wonder women's rights advocates have argued that eliminating the question could help close the gender pay gap, reasoning that the salary history question makes women's disadvantage even worse.

But it's probably not that simple. The difference in outcomes when answering the question appear to be part of an unfortunate workplace trend in which a behavior or quality considered admirable in a man becomes a detractor when exhibited by a woman. The classic example: a man who speaks up in a meeting is perceived as "assertive," while a woman who does so is deemed to be "bossy." In the case of the salary history question, a man who declines to answer might seem shrewd, savvy and strategic, while a woman doing the same could come across as non-cooperative, withholding or cold.

This doesn't necessarily mean, however, that if you're a woman you should always answer the question. First of all, at 1.8%, the difference in salary offered to women who comply is still relatively small. And the best move really comes down to the particulars your situation, like your current salary, the salary you're seeking, the pay scale of the company you're hoping to work for and the tone of your interview process.

Whether you answer or not, it's essential that you do your market research and enter the conversation with a specific idea of what you're worth. Remain friendly and approachable, but stick to your bottom line.

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