Washington, DC—New survey data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) shows, for the first time, the extent of pay secrecy at workplaces on a national level. The Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA), an update to the Equal Pay Act of 1963, has been scheduled for a vote on Wednesday, November 17 in the U.S. Senate. The act is designed to provide greater levels of wage transparency, allowing employees to discover instances of employer discrimination.

“It took Lilly Ledbetter most of a decade to find out that she was being paid less than men doing the same job,” said Heidi Hartmann, President of IWPR. “With the ability to ask about other workers’ pay, she might have discovered the wage discrimination far earlier, and could have sought a remedy without fear of recrimination.”

The survey of 2,700 adults found that 19 percent of employees say they work in a setting where discussions of wages and salaries are “formally prohibited, and/or employees caught discussing wage and salary information could be punished.” Another 31 percent of workers reported that discussion of wage and salary information “is discouraged by managers.” Wage and salary information is “public” for 27 percent of employees and the information “can be discussed” by an additional 16 percent of employees. An additional 7 percent did not know whether such discussions were permitted (Figure 1).

The survey was performed for IWPR by Precision Opinion with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation during September and October of 2010. The survey data were weighted to represent the national population distribution.

Pay secrecy is much more common in the private sector. In the private sector, 61 percent of employees are either discouraged or prohibited from discussing wage and salary information, whereas only 14 percent of public sector employees reported that pay discussions were either discouraged or prohibited (Figure 2).

“The gender wage gap in the federal government—with high levels of pay transparency—is only 11 percent,” said Barbara Gault, Vice President and Executive Director of IWPR. “The gender wage gap in the economy as a whole is 23 percent. Pay secrecy is part of the reason for this difference, and the Paycheck Fairness Act could help.”

Figure 1. ASK IF EMPLOYED: In some workplaces, information on co-worker wages and salaries is publically available, while in others a policy may state that wage and salary information is private, and that employees can be punished for discussing pay with each other. Where would you say your workplace fits here?

Source: Survey of Economic Security (2010) conducted by IWPR with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Figure 2. Percentage of workers who report that discussion of wage information is discouraged or prohibited by employer sector.

Source: Survey of Economic Security (2010) conducted by IWPR with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) conducts rigorous research and disseminates its findings to address the needs of women and their families, promote public dialogue, and strengthen communities and societies. IWPR is a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt organization that also works in affiliation with the women’s studies and public policy programs at The George Washington University.