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More Women Violate Pay Secrecy Policies. Wonder Why.

Did you know that women are the ones most likely to work under, and violate, pay secrecy policies? These are the policies that prevent, or try to prevent, employees discussing their salaries with others.

Not surprisingly, could it be because women, on average, make 18% less than men? A new study says that lack of transparency in pay contributes to the disparity, according to a Washington University in St. Louis sociologist.

According to, over the last decade, more than a dozen states plus the District of Columbia have enacted legislation banning pay secrecy policies — workplace rules that prohibit workers from discussing wages and salaries. The laws aim to eliminate a means by which employers can discriminate — intentionally or not — against women in the pay setting.

But how effective are these rules?

The authors who studied this, Jake Rosenfeld at Washington University in St. Louis, Shengwei Sun at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and Patrick Denice at the University of Western Ontario, found that, despite increased laws against it, informal pay secrecy violations jumped until 2010, then shot up again in 2017-2018. "Nearly half of full-time workers reported they were either discouraged or formally prohibited from discussing wages and salaries," newswise reports.

Additionally, and not too surprisingly, their research showed women are more likely to work under a pay secrecy policy. They’re also more likely to violate the policy — 35.3% of women and 24% of men subject to a formal pay secrecy policy say they still talk about pay with co-workers.

“An emerging body of research finds that pay secrecy policies — workplace rules, informal or formal, that bar or discourage workers from discussing wages and salaries — disadvantage women in particular,” newswise quotes Rosenfeld, professor of sociology in Arts & Sciences.

“First, these practices prevent women from finding out whether they are being underpaid. Second, in cases where women do discover a pay discrepancy by violating a pay secrecy policy and asking colleagues about what they make, their attempts to remedy the disparity could be met with retaliation from an employer.”

“Since then, state after state has taken legislative steps to bar employers from implementing these speech restrictions, and the issue has reached wide audiences in the nation’s media,” he says. “Yet we find their presence remains incredibly common, and that state-level efforts to facilitate transparency in the workplace have generally failed.”

Even in states with pay secrecy bans, nearly one in 10 workers is formally barred from discussing pay, their research found, the web site notes.

"The proportion of private-sector workers who reported that they are formally prohibited from discussing their pay fell from 25% in 2010 to 16% in 2017-18. But during that same time period, the share of workers who reported being informally discouraged from discussing their pay increased from 41% to 44%," newswise points out.

The National Labor Relations Act, which technically protects workers’ rights to discuss their pay, is riddled with loopholes and weak enforcement. It excludes large groups of employees, including supervisors and public sector workers. And even when they’re caught violating the law, employers are usually subject only to minor fines and penalties.

“Legislation alone might not be enough to shift entrenched workplace norms and practices regarding pay secrecy,” the authors write. “Many workers subject to a pay secrecy policy may not know that these policies are illegal, and employers imposing illegal restrictions may not believe that there is a realistic threat of enforcement. Legislation should be backed up by enforcement and information.”

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