This weekend, we learned that Charlize Theron was slated to be paid less than Chris Hemsworth in the upcoming movie The Huntsman. And even though we already knew that the wage gap crosses nearly all occupations, we learned last month that other famous actresses, too, like Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams, are paid less—by the millions—than their male counterparts.
But Charlize Theron managed to do something that many women cannot: she negotiated a raise, rumored to be more than $10 million, so that she is now paid the same as her male co-star.
What helped Charlize Theron fight back against unequal pay—information about what her male co-star was paid—would also help millions of women in America get their fair share. But more often than not, pay secrecy rules keep information about what the man across the hall is paid under wraps.
It is against the law for many employers to prohibit or discourage their employees from discussing or asking about wages. Nonetheless, many employers maintain pay secrecy policies and workers believe they cannot discuss wages. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that nearly half of all workers (including 62 percent of workers in the private sector), report that their employers directly prohibit or otherwise discourage them from discussing their salary. Under these policies or practices, employees face a range of threats for talking about their pay, including termination. Women like Lyn Teare, who was working for a civil engineering company when she had a conversation with a prospective applicant to the company, and the two discussed salaries. Afterwards, Teare’s boss found out she was talking about salaries, told her such conversations were not allowed, and fired her.
Pay secrecy policies allow pay discrimination to seethe and grow in the shadows, keeping women in the dark about whether they are being unjustly paid less than their male coworkers. In fact, a recent poll found that two-thirds of respondents believe that employers hide salaries to avoid gender comparisons. Women like Lilly Ledbetter, who worked at a Goodyear Tire plant in Alabama for nineteen years as an area manager, said, “I thought I was earning good pay,” until someone anonymously slipped her a note revealing that she was earning thousands less than her male counterparts—and was even being paid less than the lowest paid male area manager. It is exactly this way—by accident, or happenstance, or a colleague slipping another colleague an anonymous note—that many women find out they are being paid less than their male coworkers simply because they are women.
If more employers followed the law and removed their pay secrecy policies, women would have the ability to discuss and inquire about their wages without fear of retaliation, which would give them the tools they need to challenge unequal pay and work to close the gender-based wage gap. After all, while the gender-based wage gap for all full time workers, based on median earnings, is twenty-three percent, in the federal government, where pay rates are transparent and publicly available, the gender-based wage gap is less than half of that, at about eleven percent. Additionally, researchers have found [PDF] that fair pay results in employees who are less likely to quit, more engaged in their work, less stressed at work, and more satisfied in their personal lives. And a key determinant of whether an employee perceives she is being paid fairly is pay transparency.
Thankfully, the federal government has taken steps to give women the tools to discover and work to rectify pay discrimination. In April, President Obama issued an executive order to prohibit pay secrecy policies in federal contracts—a group of employers not currently covered by federal law— saying, “Pay secrecy fosters discrimination and we should not tolerate it—not in federal contracting or anywhere else.” In response, the Department of Labor is in the process of implementing the executive order through the regulatory rule-making process.
When we go to see Charlize Theron reprise her role as the evil queen Ravenna in The Huntsman, for all the suspense and drama of the film we can at least rest assured knowing that she is receiving fair pay for her work. Every woman should have the ability to discover whether she is suffering unequal pay, so that she can fight for the equal pay that she deserves.