Let’s talk about money. Or rather, let’s talk about how we talk about money. Because (aside from treason, nuclear war and the size of Trump’s penis) money seems to be the only thing people want to talk about lately — specifically, who gets how much of it, and whether that amount is “fair.”
Speaking of fair, Iceland instituted a new law on Monday that makes it easier for its government to enforce pay equality, prompting many publications to declare it the first country in the world to make it illegal to pay men more than women. While not inaccurate, that designation is misleading. For instance, pay discrimination based on sex has been illegal in the U.S. since the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963.
The difference between ours and Iceland’s policies is one of oversight and execution. Despite prohibiting gender discrimination in the workplace, the gender pay gap persists in the U.S. (albeit at an increasingly smaller rate). And one of the primary reasons for the peskiness of the pay gap is that it’s notoriously difficult to legally prove that a company engaged in discrimination. A company can offer up a host of qualitative characteristics — such as experience level, temperament and leadership skills — as justifications for paying an employee less than his or her peers.
Even a company such as Google, which quantifies employee performance rigorously, hasn’t been immune to accusations of gender discrimination. The company is currently the subject of a Department of Labor investigation that found “systemic compensation disparities” with respect to gender, and three former female Google employees are trying to mount a class-action lawsuit against the company alleging the same.
Iceland’s policy will, in effect, eliminate any chance for these kinds of discrepancies by giving the government direct oversight over a company’s payroll. In other words, Iceland’s policy inverts the American process of enforcing pay equality. Instead of making it illegal to discriminate and then trying to prove when such abuses occur (which, again, is incredibly difficult), Iceland will evaluate a company’s payroll and make them justify any discrepancies in compensation. It is, in essence, establishing pay equality as the legal standard as opposed to making pay discrimination illegal. Violating companies will be fined, and ones found to comply with the law will be given a certificate.
It’s hard to imagine this kind of policy ever being enacted in the U.S. Conservatives would surely scream “Socialism!” at the idea of the government forcing corporations to surrender their compensation information — not to mention the bureaucracy needed to manage such a program in a country as large as the U.S.
But the new Icelandic law comes at a time of heightened discussion about workplace compensation, one that’s been inspired in recent years by a growing call for increased salary transparency and laws aimed at eliminating the pay gap. In particular, the #TalkPay movement began three years ago on Labor Day to encourage people to openly share their income in the hopes of illuminating, and subsequently eliminating, discriminatory payment practices.
But salary transparency quickly morphed into a means of addressing the general power imbalance between workers and labor, and (hopefully) igniting a collective labor movement. At the same, a number of states (e.g., Massachusetts, New York and Oregon) have passed and enacted laws making it illegal for companies to ask prospective employees about their compensation history, ostensibly giving employees more power in salary negotiations.
Some people have even started expecting and pressuring their peers into disclosing their salaries. Just this week, freelance journalist (and sometimes MEL contributor) Luke O’Neil called for media industry workers to tweet at him their position and salaries…
…and then shamed those who didn’t heed his call.
That there was a split in participation speaks to the fundamental dilemma with salary transparency. On a general labor level, salary transparency is great. It helps elucidate and even out discrepancies in pay, both arbitrary and discriminatory. But on a personal level, and in terms of negotiating the best possible salary for yourself, it’s best to keep that information private.
That individualism is a fundamental aspect of worklife in America, and a large part of the reason our country doesn’t have an equal pay law like Iceland’s.