Equal Pay Bill Fails to Provide Women With Answers

In a triumphant moment for women’s equality, the state Senate passed an Equal Pay bill on Aug. 31 to refresh some old laws in desperate need of an update. Gov. Jerry Brown has since indicated his intention to sign the bill, SB-358, as well, according to ABC. SB-358 promotes transparency and communication between employees and their employers regarding wages. Sadly, the bill does not automatically mean that women and men will have equal paychecks, although it is currently one of the strongest efforts in California to combat the gender wage gap.

In 2013, women in California were paid an average of 84 cents for every dollar a man made, reported the San Diego Union-Tribune. The bill aims to mitigate this issue. Part of the bill prohibits employers from forcing workers to keep their wages a secret, allowing for men and women to more easily compare their salaries without risking a lawsuit. Previously, employers could require their workers to waive the right to tell other people about their wages.

While existing laws prevent employers from paying different wages for similar work in the same establishment, SB-358 has expanded this to include separate establishments. This allows women to compare their wages to those of men who do similar work, albeit in a slightly different environment. For example, a woman working as a teacher at an elementary school can now ask her employer why a male teacher working at a different school is paid more. There is no need for their jobs to be identical either, as long as they are responsible for “substantially similar work,” as the bill states.

If an employer is discovered to pay a male employee more than a female employee, they may be held accountable for explaining why. There must be a “bona fide factor other than sex” for paying a man more than a woman. To prove that the wage gap is not due to gender, the employer may reference systems that measure differences in merit, education, training, experience, seniority or quality of work.

An important aspect of the bill allows women to ask their employers how much money they are paying other people in the company. This is significant because women need protections which allow them to be assertive and inquisitive. A survey by Pay Scale found that 31 percent of women are uncomfortable negotiating salaries, compared to 23 percent of men. In an interview with CNBC, Laura Kray, a professor of leadership at the UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, said, “to [negotiate] requires being assertive, taking initiative, probably taking out your list of accomplishments and thereby self-promoting. It turns out people don’t like it when women do this.” It is likely that some women do not negotiate for higher salaries for fear of being penalized or perceived as too aggressive. That’s why it is crucial that this bill prevents employers from punishing women’s questions about their salaries.

However, the ultimate flaw in this new bill is the protection given to employers, allowing them to keep secrets about their workers’ wages. Oh sure, a woman can now ask her boss what her male co-worker is earning — while she’s protected from being retaliated against under SB-358, this in no way obligates her boss to give an answer. Sec. 2 of SB-358 says, “nothing in this section creates an obligation to disclose wages.”

Everything about this bill claims to promote transparency, communication and no more secrets — except for the boss. Female employees have regained the right to discuss wages and actually question the value of their wages, but the right to receive an answer to their questions is tactfully omitted from the bill. The next step to fixing the wage gap is developing the guts to demand answers.