Efforts to end gender wage disparity have been going on in this country since at least the 1860s. But while the gender wage gap has narrowed significantly since then, progress has stagnated over the last 15 years, with the latest U.S. Census data showing women on average still make just 82 cents on the dollar of what men are paid for the same work.

States have in recent years adopted a wide range of policies aimed at closing that gap the rest of the way, including greater emphasis on pay transparency, data collection and efforts to encourage employers to voluntarily implement gender wage equity.

The Scope of the Problem

Among the many challenges in closing the wage gap is that the degree of the disparity can vary greatly depending on several factors, including the state where a woman works. In Wyoming, for instance, women earn about 65 percent of what a man earns for similar work, the greatest gender wage gap in the country. At the other end of the spectrum, Vermont women make 91 percent of what men make.

Age also plays a role. A recent Pew Research analysis of wage data from 2019 found that the gap for female workers from ages 25 to 34 compared to men in the same age range was just seven cents.

But nothing tops race as a factor in wage disparity. According to Census data analyzed by the National Partnership for Women and Families, Black women make only 63 cents on the dollar of what is paid to men, while for Latina women that figure drops to 55 cents. Asian American and Pacific Islanders fare the worst at just 52 cents on the dollar.

Pay Transparency

One of the most common efforts states have made in recent years is to require greater pay transparency, including specifically protecting workers who share their salary history with colleagues.

Although most legal experts agree that the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 already bars employers from silencing workers who share salary information, states have found more than enough reasons to adopt their own measures. In recent years, Michigan, California, Colorado, Maine, Hawaii, Vermont and Minnesota are just some of the states that have imposed laws which bar employers from preventing employees from sharing their salary information or for retaliating against them if they do.

Seattle resident Kristin Baldwin Stewart knows firsthand the value of this kind of information sharing.

In her last job, a company shake-up had led to a number of layoffs and, eventually, her promotion into a supervisory position. But while her responsibilities increased substantially, her pay did not. A discussion with her male colleagues at the same level led to a shocking discovery – they were making $50,000 a year more than her. Armed with this knowledge, she immediately asked the powers that be for commensurate pay. Their response was to offer $20,000, take it or leave it. She left it and is now in a similar job with a woman-owned company, with a salary on par with what the old job had refused to pay her. 

“I was fortunate in that I had male allies, and they were appalled by what was happening,” she says. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have known.”

Information is also top of mind in several states that have barred employers from asking applicants for their salary history, an effort to end the perpetuation of wage inequity that follows women from job to job. 

This June, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) signed SB 293, a measure that made the Silver State the 20th to bar employers from asking for this information or using it to set a potential hire’s salary. Alabama, Colorado, California, Washington, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and Oregon are just some of the states in recent years that have adopted such laws.

Knowledge is Power

The Nevada law includes another tenet growing in popularity – a requirement that employers provide applicants with a salary range for that open position. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) signed a similar bill (HB 6380) on June 7th. Both measures go into effect on October 1.

To date, such laws also exist in Colorado, California and Maryland. A similar disclosure bill (HB 1950/SB 1208) has been introduced and is pending hearings in Massachusetts. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, various other transparency measures were also introduced in South Carolina (HB 3188), Iowa (HF 188), Mississippi (SB 2330) and Alaska (SB 16) this session, but none went very far before expiring for the year. 

California job seeker Annette Fix also knows that laws are only as good as the willingness of companies to follow them.

An experienced executive assistant trying to recover from over a year of pandemic-induced unemployment, she has been on countless interviews in recent months, and has been asked numerous times about her salary expectations. In a recent face-to-face, she turned the tables by asking the recruiter the position’s salary range. The response was confrontational.

“No, we’re not doing this,” she says he told her before demanding to know what she had been paid at her last job.

She admits to not knowing the law prohibited him from asking for that information but says she’s not sure if she would have called him on it anyway.

“It would be his word against mine without any way to prove it,” she says. “And therein lies the dance. If I’m pushy and demand to know, then I just get cut from the process for being difficult.”

But playing along might not have been much better. She says she was significantly underpaid at her last position and using that number would almost surely guarantee she would remain underpaid in this one as well.

All of which makes achieving gender pay equity such a challenge, says Tiffany Bartow, Program Director for the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls (CCSWG).

“A lot of women say ‘how am I supposed to go to my employer and say I know this man is making more than me?’” she says. “A lot of them are scared about retaliation.”

In that regard, Bartow says the CCSWG is working on a number of equal pay initiatives, including one that helps educate women “to be sure they know their rights and how to approach the Labor Commission and open a claim.”

The Commission has also signed on more than 40 major California companies – including Apple, Salesforce and AT&T – to an equal pay pledge.

In 2020 California also became the first state to require employers to report wage data by race and gender across 11 pay bands. The law applies to companies with 100 or more workers, even if they have as few as one actually based in the state, or if they are an out of state worker that reports to a California-based manager.

The reporting measure has drawn skepticism from some fronts, but Bartow is optimistic it will help.

“I don’t know if you will see a big difference, but I do think the law will make some difference,” she says.

These are hardly the only efforts states have undertaken of late to address gender pay disparity. As NCSL notes, states like California, Illinois, Nebraska and Maine have also broadened the definition of what constitutes “equal” or “comparable” work, while California and Washington now require corporate boards to have at least one female member.

Baldwin Stewart is circumspect about many of them, including the trend toward mandated wage disclosure.

“I appreciate good legislation, but they’re still going to try to push a woman toward the lower end of the range,” she says. “There needs to be a culture change. A law alone won’t change the culture. For that we need more male allies. We need more women business owners.”

There has also been corporate pushback on Colorado’s wage disclosure law, which imposes fines up to $10,000 per violation. In response, some recruiting firms have opted to explicitly exclude Colorado workers from applying for remote positions. Last December, the Rocky Mountain Association of Recruiters sued to block the law, claiming it is unconstitutional.

A federal court rejected that argument on June 24th. The plaintiffs have not yet indicated if they will appeal the ruling. In the meantime, Colorado Sen. Brittany Pettersen (D), one of the law’s 2019 legislative sponsors, told Colorado Politics that the law is doing exactly what it was intended to do – give women a better chance to earn what they are worth.

“Equal pay for equal work is a Colorado value, not an ‘undue burden,’” she said.


Nineteen States Ban Employer Salary History Requests

As of August 2020, nineteen states had barred employers from requesting salary history information from job applicants in an effort to end pay discrimination, according to HR Dive. Some of those bans also prohibit employers from taking disciplinary action against employees who discuss compensation with their coworkers. Two states, Michigan and Wisconsin, however, prohibit such salary history bans.