How much money are you making in your current job?

For many of us, this is the most awkward part of any interview. But this question may do more harm than just causing job applicants to squirm. When employers use past salary information to decide what they’ll pay, it reinforces the existing gap in wages between men and women.

According to the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, women in Hawaii earn 84 cents per dollar of what men earn for comparable work — and it’s even more pronounced for women of color. This amounts to a difference between women’s and men’s median annual earnings of about $9,000, or more than three years of community college tuition in Hawaii.

Today, women make up half of all workers in the United States, and they serve as the primary breadwinner in nearly 40 percent of all families. This means that the wage gap hurts all working families, especially those in Hawaii who are burdened by the state’s exorbitant housing prices and cost of living.

Washington DC Womens March. Hawaii marchers head from Stanton & Greene towards The Capitol and The Mall. Washington DC. 21 jan 2017
Hawaii women participate in the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., in January 2017. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Past salary history contributes to this gap, in part because men are far more likely to ask for a raise and aggressively negotiate their compensation packages. Studies also show that men are often more successful in getting a raise than an equally qualified woman.

In an experiment conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, subjects were asked to watch a video of men and women negotiating for a pay raise. The viewers, both men and women, generally found the women too demanding, but they agreed that the men deserved a raise.

And it isn’t just women who are often hurt by basing pay on previous salary histories. Many millennials who took lower-paying jobs during the Great Recession risk losing hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of their careers if their later salaries are based on previous positions.

Fortunately, on Jan. 1, your salary history will not be anyone’s business but your own.

Thanks to the efforts of the AAUW Hawaii and its allies, Gov. David Ige recently signed into law the Equal Pay Bill, with other bills from the Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus. Hawaii now joins California, Delaware, Oregon and Massachusetts to prohibit prospective employers from requesting or considering a job applicant’s wage or salary history as part of an employment application process or compensation offer.

Earning a fair wage often means the difference between raising our families in Hawaii or leaving for the mainland.

When Senate Bill 2351 takes effect next year, it will prohibit enforced wage secrecy and retaliation or discrimination against employees who disclose, discuss, or inquire about their own or coworkers’ wages. That means that employees, if they wish, can reveal their own compensation or ask what their colleagues are making.

As we all know, earning a fair wage often means the difference between raising our families in Hawaii or leaving for the mainland. With this new legislation, Hawaii has taken a positive step to address the wage gap — but there’s much more to be done.

Another important policy to enact is paid family leave. Research shows that a major cause of the wage gap is that women are more likely to take time off of work to care for their children or an elderly relative. But in Hawaii employees do not have the right to paid family or medical leave. This is not unique. According to statistics the U.S. Department of Labor, only 13 percent of all American workers were given paid leave by their employers in 2014.

Last year the Hawaii Working Families Coalition supported legislation to create a family leave insurance program in Hawaii. It would have guaranteed 16 weeks of paid leave for all employees to care for a child or close relative through a state-managed social insurance program. Although the Legislature declined to adopt this proposal, the passage of the Equal Pay Bill gives us hope that our state is finally getting serious about addressing the wage gap.

It will take years of hard work to close inequality between the salaries of men and women, but the Equal Pay Bill guarantees that none of us will need to worry that accepting a modest salary in the past will doom us to a lifetime of lower pay.

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