How much should women say about past pay?

Woman Lean In
The question of whether to disclose past salary information during an interview is a tricky one. (Getty/Digital Vision)

Questions about past pay are always awkward, but for women, they could exacerbate the gender pay gap, reports show.

A woman who refused to speak about her salary history was offered 1.8% less than a woman who did, according to a study of more than 15,000 job seekers who visited, reported in an article by the Society for Human Resource Management. But if a man refused to answer, he was offered, on average, a 1.2% higher salary than a man who did respond.

One reason for this may be that people react negatively when women negotiate for higher pay, wrote the article’s author, Lydia Frank, vice president of content strategy at PayScale.

“By not disclosing their salary, the women in our study may have signaled to a potential employer that they were intent on negotiating—and were punished for it. Women, it seems, may be penalized for sending this signal, while men are not,” Frank said.

Negotiating pay conflicts with society’s expectations about how women should behave, Carnegie Mellon University economist Linda Babcock told NPR in 2007, according to a Quartz article.

Another possible reason is that employers may assume women who refuse to answer earn less.

“Whether it’s conscious or not, employers may be jumping to conclusions about a woman’s salary when she declines to reveal it,” she wrote. “In the absence of information, what information is being assumed?”

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Both men and women who declined to answer questions about past pay tended to earn more at their current jobs, the study found. But Frank said a better way to approach this situation is to not ask at all.

“The relationship with a potential new employee should get off to a good start, so don’t put them in the awkward position of having to decide what to reveal about their previous pay,” Frank wrote. “Avoiding the question gives a better impression about the way pay is set at the organization.”

Besides, “current salary should have no bearing on what an employer is willing to pay for a particular position,” Frank said. “Compensation should be a data-driven decision based on the current value of a given position in the talent market.”

Sometimes employers ask candidates about past salaries to determine that expectations are in line with the budget for the position, but there are other ways to determine that, she said. For instance, employers could simply ask about salary expectations or take a straightforward approach and disclose the pay range for a position.

Some governments see the value in forgoing the past salary question. Last year, Massachusetts passed the first law in the country that bans employers from asking about salary history. Other states and cities, including New York City, have followed suit.

But that might not be a silver bullet, Frank added. “On the one hand, if what’s happening is unconscious bias from employers toward women who refuse to answer the question, then not being able to ask may alleviate some of the gap we’re seeing in offers to female disclosers versus refusers. If, however, the real issue is around employers filling in the salary blanks differently based on gender when candidates don’t share their current salary, a ban on asking for pay history may not get the job done.”