Why asking about salary history can hurt women's careers

Asking for a raise: Women vs. men
Asking for a raise: Women vs. men

The dreaded question: "Well, what do you make now?"

Maybe you've heard that in a job interview before. But if you live in New York, California or Massachusetts, you may never hear it again.

Recent legislation in several states and cities has made it illegal for potential employers to ask interviewees about their past salaries. The intent behind the laws: to redress the balance for women and minorities who are already fighting a wage gap (one that gets even steeper for black and Latina women).

According to a wage gap report released by New York City's public advocate Letita James, women earn $5.8 billion less in wages than men.

"By banning questions about salary history, we are putting a stop to an employment practice that perpetuates gender wage discrimination and hurts all New Yorkers," she said.

Because women are less likely to earn as much as their male colleagues or to negotiate a job offer, the legislation banning questions about salary history could, in theory, help to even the playing field.

Related: What happens when women know how much other women make

The "What were you making at your last job?" question can haunt women far into the future, says Laura Kray, the Warren E. and Carol Spieker Chair in Leadership at the University of California-Berkeley

One low salary can set a woman's career back, because it comes up again and again with every negotiation she pursues. Potential new employers could offer her less than they would a male candidate with the same qualifications -- simply because she earned less at a previous job.

"It's a question that can lead to ongoing discrimination," Kray says. "You can see how discrimination at one point in time can have trailing effects that would be damaging."

If they're not automatically restricted to the confines of their past salary, advocates hope, these applicants stand a better chance in the negotiation process, to catch up to their higher-earning white male counterparts.

Related: How to research company culture — before you take the job

Even though more states and cities are banning the question, women still might face it in a job interview. Kray says some may worry that asking for more will lower their chances of actually getting the job, or others may think that dodging the salary history question could take them out of the running entirely.

"Any time you're in a negotiation over a job, even if the potential employee has a lot of leverage -- let's say he or she has other job offers as well -- most of the time when they're in the position of seeking the job, we psychologically feel like we're in a low power position," she says.

She has a tip for sidestepping the self-sabotage: flip that power dynamic.

"You want to think about how you can throw it back to the employer -- 'Well, my previous salary isn't relevant.'"

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