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She Started the Movement to Ban Employers From Asking About Your Salary History. She Wants Job Ads to Change Next.

April 2, 2019, 10:30 AM UTC

Solving the problem of gender wage inequity takes effort from companies, employees, and lawmakers. For Equal Pay Day, we spoke with a pay equality expert who works with all three.

Equal Pay Negotiations’ Katie Donovan. FayFoto/Boston © 2010 FAYFOTO/Boston
FayFoto/Boston © 2010 FAYFOTO/Boston

Katie Donovan started the movement to ban employers from asking about salary history in job interviews—one way that the cycle of lower pay for women and other underrepresented groups is perpetuated as employees move from job to job. Laws governing how or whether employers can ask about salary history started with a ban in Massachusetts and have now spread to 13 states and 12 cities. Donovan now works as a consultant on pay equality through her business Equal Pay Negotiations.

Donovan talks to Fortune about what the next signature issue will be in the movement for pay equity and how to keep the movement for pay equality going year-round.

Fortune: Why was salary history the first major equal pay issue that you chose to take legislative action on?

Donovan: In October 2011, I was interviewed for a documentary that never got released. But one of the questions was, ‘If you could write policy, what would the policy work be that you’d write?’ And I knew that mathematically, we’re never going to achieve pay equity if we’re always using a number from underpayment to determine future payments. I said, there are two things that I care about. Ban the use of salary history. And actually have jobs list what they pay when they’re posted. I just think that should be transparent. Jobs, for 99% of us, are the most important financial decision we make because everything else is based on it.

What’s your take on the status of salary history bans nationwide?

I’m actually surprised how quickly it’s being adopted. There are 13 states including Massachusetts that have either laws that restrict or banned it, or executive orders that do so. And then there are 12 cities that have laws or executive orders banning its use or restricting its use. When you [explain the problem] out loud, people are like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ And yet everyone uses the [salary history] question. Employers with national presences have already adopted [bans of the question] for all their locations regardless of what the local laws are. So it’s getting good traction.

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What do you think the next big legislative issue is for pay equity?

California is the only state that has requirements that if you are asked, you have to inform a candidate or an employee of what the job pays. You have to give them an answer. I would like to see movement there.

How do you explain the pay gap to people?

When I talk about the gap itself and what it is, we’re talking about three core things: Jobs done by women are traditionally paid less or valued less than jobs traditionally done by men. Women doing the exact same job as men are getting paid less at it. And women are not getting promoted at the same rate.

But we could wake up tomorrow and have absolutely no discrimination and no bias. But with current HR practices, we will not close the gap for at least 45 years, because that’s roughly how long it will take for everyone working today to be out of the work world.

What do you find employers’ perspectives are on the pay gap right now?

There’s a lot of interest in closing it. I think there’s also more interest in big domestic programs than boring little process changes. But details are where we have to be. It is hard for most employers to believe that they are doing anything to impact pay in a bad way. Within your own four walls as an employer, you can be amazingly perfect. Equitable as equitable can be. But without acknowledging that all of your employees come from somewhere else—the likelihood, if they’re a woman, if they’re a person of color, from the LGBTQ community, if they have a disability, of them having been discriminated against [in pay in the past] is very high. And for you not to actively make sure you are not continuing that, continues the pay gaps. And that’s the disconnect that I’m discovering.

What are employers’ reactions when you try to get them to think about how they might perpetuate the problem?

It’s like any hard conversation. It is varying levels of acceptance or acknowledgment.

Are there any misconceptions that you think that individuals have about their employers’ approach to the pay gap?

People tend to think that it has to be an aggressively hateful person trying to hurt you to be underpaid. And it’s far from it. It’s just people doing what is the norm and not thinking any differently of it.

Is Equal Pay Day a meaningful measure of the pay gap, from your perspective?

We need a way to be aware of it constantly, which is how we will actually create change, by having people feel uncomfortable consistently that there’s no other option but to do something different. Be aware that every single Friday, women are not being paid for that day. If you’re thinking of this 52 times a year, it gets a little more traction than once a year. And if you are the typical woman, every Friday you’re showing up at work and you are not being paid.

This interview has been edited and condensed.