It's a question dreaded by anyone interviewing for a job: What's your salary history? Say too much, and put yourself out of contention. Say too little, and worry you'll be underpaid.
Three Democrats in Congress think employers should be banned from asking it. Lawmakers Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. said recently that they planned to introduce a bill when Congress returns from the summer recess that would prohibit employers from asking about candidates' past compensation before making them a job offer.
The reason, however, isn't simply to eliminate a question no one likes. It's because of the role it's said to play in perpetuating the lower salaries that women and people of color receive more often, even early in their careers.
"Ultimately, the only way to make sure women and minorities will be treated equally is to remove the early biases that exist, both in hiring practices and salary negotiations," Rep. Nadler said in a statement announcing the plans. "Our bill works to eliminate those obstacles by requiring employers to offer salaries based on the value of the work."
The announcement is the latest sign that efforts to dump the dreaded question could be gaining momentum. In early August, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to ban the question when Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signed an equal pay bill into law that passed unanimously by both of the state's legislative branches. Similarly, it said employers could not ask about salary history until a job offer was made, though lawyers said it did not prevent candidates from volunteering the information, or appear to keep employers from asking about a desired range in pay.
That recent law was cited in the Democrats' announcement. "Massachusetts has taken a bold step forward in closing the wage gap by preventing employers from asking salary history in interviews," said Rep. DeLauro in the statement, "and I strongly urge Congress to follow the state's lead and enact this legislation."
In California, an amendment to the state's Fair Pay Act, which went into effect at the beginning of this year, would prohibit employers from basing compensation decisions on prior salaries alone. Colorado is also weighing a bill that addresses prior salary, said Noreen Farrell, the executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit that sponsored equal rights legislation in California. She thinks there's been a "change in tide" from the business community that could be helping the momentum on the issue. "I tend to be a realist, but I have been really been very buoyed by business support for very strong fair pay laws," she said.
Meanwhile, some high-profile human resources executives have spoken out against the question. Google's former head of "people operations," Laszlo Bock, wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post back in April that the "fundamental problem" in fixing the gender wage gap "is hidden in the way we make pay decisions. Fixing it requires us to focus on paying people what a job is worth -- and not basing a pay decision on someone's current salary."
Still, the chances of such a bill becoming law in today's legislative environment in Washington, particularly anytime soon, don't seem particularly promising. The Paycheck Fairness Act, or bills similar to it legislating equal pay, have been introduced in every Congress since 1997, according to the website GovTrack.
Still it shouldn't be counted out yet, says Fatima Goss Graves, a senior vice president at the National Women's Law Center.
"People can see the connection of the deep unfairness of carrying past discrimination with you to job after job," she said. And the support the issue received from the business community in Massachusetts could be galvanizing. "When states show that something is possible, that's extremely reinforcing."
Even if it doesn't go anywhere at the national level, she believes more states could follow suit. "Just as we're seeing Congress take this up," she said, "in 2017 I think this will be an issue to watch."