(Bloomberg) -- "What do you make in your current job?" For women, is there any good answer to that dreaded job-interview question?
Even not answering at all can ding what women earn, a new study has found. When job applicants are asked about their current salaries, women get penalized for demurring, while men benefit, according to a survey from PayScale Inc., a salary comparison website.
Women start their careers making around 90 cents to the male-earned dollar, according to recent Pew data. A disparity can persist for their entire careers, especially if their future salaries are based on their previous ones. Even after adjusting for experience, education, and other factors, women earn 5.6 percent less than men, Glassdoor's chief equal-pay officer told Bloomberg in April.
To combat that, Massachusetts, New York City, and Philadelphia have enacted bans barring employers from asking job candidates about their previous pay, on the theory that doing so worsens the pay gap for women and minorities. But the practice remains legal and commonplace in most places. As a result, many job applicants get advice not to disclose their current salary even if asked.
In PayScale's study, nearly half of the more than 15,000 full-time workers surveyed said that, in the process of being hired, they had been asked. But women who refused to disclose ultimately got final salary offers that were 1.8 percent lower than the ones given to women who did disclose. Men who refused to give a number, however, ended up making more than those who chose not to divulge.
That created a 3 percent pay gap between the men and women who refuse to answer.
"This runs counter to advice that we’ve been giving women," said Lydia Frank, the vice president of content strategy at PayScale.
Men and women alike are told to avoid talking previous salary figures during salary negotiations. It's considered particularly important for women, who can end up making less than men because they also made less in a previous job—but PayScale's findings suggest that following advice could hurt women, too. (Not that it's news that women must walk a thin line in hiring talks: Other research has found they're penalized for acting as assertive as men in salary negotiations.)
So in refusing to talk salary history, why are women penalized for doing the same thing that gets men get a salary boost?
"By just not answering the question, it is striking the recruiter the wrong way," said Frank. Recruiters often look for collaborativeness in women job candidates, she said; one might see a candidate who declines to respond as uncooperative.
Recruiters might also assume that a woman who declines to provide her salary is doing so because it's low. "If they’re refusing to disclose, they can get the notion that they’re not happy with their current salary," said Frank.
Some critics of barring employers from asking about pay history have suggested that it could lead recruiters simply to guess at what people make—perhaps relying only on their own biases, and potentially resulting in more pay discrimination. Some employers have pushed back on the new rules; Philadelphia's is being challenged in court by its Chamber of Commerce.
Advocates of pay transparency suggest recruiters offer a salary range, or throw out a realistic figure for the position for which they're hiring. "What’s wrong with the employer going first?" said Frank. "Our advice to employers is to stop asking."