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Moz CEO Sarah Bird in Olympia on Friday. (Via TVW; click for video archive)

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state’s Equal Pay Act dates to the 1940s, requiring men and women to receive the same pay for the same work.

More than seven decades later, a bill up for discussion in the state Legislature last week aimed to ensure that equitable pay actually happens by requiring employers to allow employees to openly discuss their compensation with their colleagues if they wish to do so.

“If our intent is to have fairness, why haven’t we achieved it?” said Sarah Bird, the CEO of Seattle-based online marketing technology company Moz, testifying Friday morning before the Washington Senate Commerce & Labor Committee. One reason, she said, is the element of secrecy that surrounds questions of compensation.

“I have seen first-hand, in my own company, this insidious belief that to be professional you’re not allowed to talk about how much money you make,” Bird said. She added later, “I want to help flip that, and I’m asking for your help to flip that. Professionals can and should talk about their pay, and it shouldn’t be a nasty dirty secret that you get dinged upon for talking about.”

WTIA CEO Michael Schutzler in Olympia on Friday. (Via TVW; click for video archive)

Gender disparity is a widespread problem in the tech industry, said Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, in his own testimony before the committee. Eighteen percent of computer science graduates are women, he noted. Many tech companies have less than 35 percent women, even when including all the jobs in the company.

“Many tech companies have worked very hard to fix this issue with deliberate recruiting efforts, flexible work arrangements, generous parental leave, investment in education, and mentoring, but it’s not enough,” he testified. “There is also a pervasive pay inequity based on gender,” Schutzler said, noting that he has seen and corrected the problem at the companies he has joined as a leader.

“Today, the tech industry as a whole is taking a strong public stand that gender pay inequity is unacceptable anywhere,” he said.

Discussing the matter after he testified, Schutzler cited a 2015 PayScale study that found that women across industries earn 74 percent of what men make. Several factors affect that percentage, including men holding a majority of the top-paying jobs. The difference between women and men in the computer tech world is 3 percent, according to that report. Schutzler noted the smaller differential in the tech world, but said the industry needs to lead in pay equality for women across all fields.

Schutzler said that Microsoft and Amazon also deserve credit for instituting policies and audits, among other measure, to combat pay inequity.

Despite the testimony of tech leaders, a revised version of the bill died in committee last week, but it’s expected to be introduced again next year for a new attempt.

Rep. Tana Senn, D-41
Rep. Tana Senn, D-41

Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, first introduced this bill in 2015 to tighten the state law against pay discrimination based on gender. The House passed it 55-43, and it died in the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee. The same committee held Friday’s hearing on the 2016 version, which passed the House 56-42.

The original 2016 version of Senn’s bill would have forbidden assigning an employee to a less favorable career track based on gender. Pay differences would have to be based on education, training or experience — but not on subjective performance evaluations. Senn said strong women are perceived differently than similar strong men in subjective evaluations, citing a 2014 Fortune magazine survey in which women received drastically more criticism in reviews than comparable men.

Senn’s 10-year-old daughter, Rachel, stole the show at the hearing, urging the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee to pass her mother’s bill.

“This bill doesn’t say bosses must share everyone’s pay with everyone else, it’s just giving women the opportunity to ask if they are being paid less,” Rachel Senn said. “When I grow up, I don’t want to live in a world where women are paid less, and I really don’t want to live in a world where women don’t know if they are paid less, and they can get fired for exercising their first-amendment right of free speech.”

Rachel Senn testifies on her mom’s bill. (Via TVW. Click for video.)

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, the committee chair, said to Rachel after her testimony, “I think we can send your mom home, and keep you here.”

Rep. Senn’s version of the bill would have forbidden employers from stopping or retaliating against workers who discuss their pay with fellow employees, and would allow workers to make inquiries to their supervisors on pay differential matters.

On Thursday, the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee’s Republican majority replaced Senn’s language with their own in the bill. Among other factors, Senn said she opposed provisions of the revised bill that limit when and where an employee can discuss pay with fellow workers — describing that as “micromanaging speech for employees.”

“Just to be clear, the underlying bill makes this about eliminating secrecy. It does not require transparency,” Rep. Senn said. “It’s not requiring people to post all of the salaries of employees. It’s more that, if employees are discussing them back and forth, that is fine, and an employee can talk to their employer about it.”

Senn contended that the GOP’s revised version also left open a subjective performance review standard for employers to use — again saying that subjective factors have backfired on women. She also opposed a provision in the Republican version that allowed geographic areas to be a factor in in determining equitable pay.

Senn, Schutzler and Bird still encouraged the committee to move the revised bill forward, in the hopes that the differences with the House version could be worked out in the full Senate. However, the bill ultimately didn’t have the necessary support to make it out of committee.

Joe Kendo, lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council, echoed Senn in opposing the revised version because it has restricted when employees can talk about their pay. 

Patrick Connor, Washington director of the National Federation of Independent Business, opposed the original bill, but was neutral on the revision. He argued that employers should not have to deal with fears of litigation if they want to pay more for merit reasons.

“Once again, instead of trying to find ways to incent women to go into STEM degrees, to go into other, better-paying industries, we’re simply coming up with yet one more way to expose small employers to additional litigation, which again doesn’t guarantee an improved outcome,” Connor said. “It only guarantees that the trial lawyers will make more money — so let’s hope more of them are women.”

Legal Voice and the Economic Opportunity Institute, both advocacy organizations with interests in pay-inequity matters, supported Senn’s original bill, saying the revised version does too much to negate it.

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