Fight wage discrimination: Share your salary info

Woman holding pink piggy bank

You need to know how much money your friends earn. If you're a woman, you really need to know how much they bring home.

Wage discrimination -- the practice of paying one person less than another for reasons that have nothing to do with work -- happens everywhere.

There's no reason your manager can't pay the guy who sits at the desk next to yours more just because he likes that person more than he likes you.

For women, wage discrimination is particularly common.

On average, American women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. That's $11,000 a year, or between $400,000 and $2 million per woman in a working lifetime, and enough to pay many family's annual mortgage payments.

The situation is even worse for Hispanic women, who make 60.5 cents, and black women, who earn 69.5 cents, for every dollar a white man earns.

The pay gap exists in part because industries that predominantly employ women generally pay workers less than industries that predominantly employ men. Compare the average salaries of schoolteachers and engineers, for instance, or the wages of day care providers and fishermen.

There's another big reason for the pay gap.

It's illegal -- as well as degrading, humiliating and just plain wrong -- for an employer to pay an equally qualified woman less than a man for doing the same job.

But it is entirely legal for an employer to tell workers that they may not reveal their compensation to anyone outside their immediate families. Many employers have that rule and set it out in the employee handbook.

Those companies can reprimand or fire you if you tell your cube mate how much your bonus was last year or reveal how much your salary is this year. (Union jobs, where pay scales are defined and known to every worker, are a major exception.)

So while it's illegal to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same job, and inconvenient to explain why one man is being paid more than another equally qualified man, it's legal to threaten anyone with dismissal for investigating the question of whether or not they're being paid less than similarly qualified co-workers.

It's a neat way of keeping workers in the dark, and it works.

Very few people successfully sue their employers for wage discrimination. One recent litigant was willing to bring her ultimately successful suit only because she had a risk-free way to know what her employer was paying other salespeople: Her husband was both a co-worker and an immediate family member.

That puts you in a ticklish position. You need to find out what you're really worth, but you don't want to get fired in the process.

Begin by reading the employee handbook.

Does your company have a policy against sharing compensation information? If not, you may be able to persuade co-workers that it's in everyone's best interest to have this data.

To address privacy concerns, consider asking people to write down the information on a list that omits names.

If your employer does have a policy against sharing compensation details, you may still be able to persuade one or more friends to share their information with you, on the condition that you all agree to keep quiet about the swap.

You probably can't use this information as proof in a lawsuit without getting fired, but you can use it in a general way when you negotiate your next raise.

Can't approach your co-workers? Your next-best choice is to go online and get a general sense of what someone in your job and geographic area should be making.

Try www.salary.com, www.payscale.com or monster.salary.com. A Google search for "salary comparison" and your company's name may reveal even more specific information.

There's no guarantee that you'll bag the average salary these sites list for your kind of work. The numbers will vary with your experience and education, as well as how badly the company wants to hire or keep you.

Even so, the numbers give you a bargaining chip -- and an important way to level the playing field -- as you negotiate with a current or future employer.