Can an Interview Question Perpetuate Gender-Based Discrimination?

You’ve probably heard that women earn an average of 20 percent less than what men in the same position make. From the moment a woman enters the workforce, this unequal footing sets her on a disadvantaged trajectory for her entire career.

When a woman decides to move into a new position, she’ll typically be asked about her salary at her previous job. As this salary is likely lower than her male counterparts applying for the same role, it will negatively impact her negotiating power and starting salary in her new role. At each change in her career, her comparatively lower salary from her previous job further exacerbates the gender-based wage gap.

However, some states—and even some employers—have taken steps to combat this trend. They’re banning interviewers from asking about a job applicant’s previous salary at all. The theory is that by taking salary history out of the equation, employers will have to focus on more accurate indicators of what makes a skilled, productive employee.

Could This Work?

The ban has only been implemented in a few states, and it is new enough that its effectiveness has yet to be determined.

On the one hand, there is evidence that blind studies lead to more equitable results. For example, a recent study of classical musicians who auditioned for a symphony orchestra from behind a curtain led to a greater number of female musicians being hired.

On the other hand, in a separate study, employers who were not permitted to ask about applicants’ criminal history tended to hire fewer black and Hispanic applicants. One explanation of this result is that employers had an underlying, discriminatory presumption of a criminal record among such candidates, and without concrete evidence to the contrary, they were more likely to rely on this unfounded presumption.

Thus, the same could hold true in the case of gender and wages. If a woman applies for a job and is not asked about her salary history, the employer may assume that the woman’s salary was probably lower and use this assumption as a basis for the salary offer at the new job.

Because much of discrimination is rooted in stereotypes that may not even be conscious, there are no straightforward answers to solving these issues. Nonetheless, workplace discrimination is illegal. If you believe you’ve been a victim of gender-based discrimination at your job, it’s worth consulting with an employment attorney to understand your rights.