Dr. Nancy Wayne

Scientist, Educator & Speaker

“What Is Your Current Salary?” How Not Negotiating Your First Salary Could Haunt You for Your Entire Career

Less than a year ago, I was interviewed by an executive search firm for a high level administrative position at a research university. After a long discussion about my various work experiences, the interviewer asked me, “What is your current salary?” This was a pre-interview to decide whether or not I was worth bringing out to the university for an interview with the actual search committee made up of faculty and academic administrators. My answer was, “It is premature in the interview process to discuss salary.”

Being asked for your current salary has become a normal part of job applications and interviews. Unfortunately, that information can work against you if your current salary is lower than what it should be. That number is the baseline from where your next salary will likely start. The question about current salary hurts anyone who was not adept at negotiating their salary at the get-go and beyond. And women are hurt typically more than men.

Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (2003) showed that men are four times more likely to negotigender-wage-gap-2ate a starting salary. Further, they emphasized that by not negotiating, a woman will lose more than $500,000 by age 60. I can certainly think of a lot of things I could do with half-a-million dollars! See my blog on the importance of self-promotion and negotiation for more information about getting ahead and staying ahead.

Did I negotiate my first salary? I tried, and failed. I was told that I could negotiate either my salary, a university-subsidized house, or university childcare – only one, but not all three. I chose negotiating for a university-subsidized house in a housing market that was nearly impossible for a new Assistant Professor to break into. It took me an additional two years to negotiate university childcare. But, it took me 18 years to negotiate a salary that was on par with that of my male peers. Because I work at a state institution, all salaries of state employees (including those of my colleagues) are public information and easily accessed. I didn’t know that when I was hired. To negotiate an acceleration of my salary, I dug up two bits of important data: 1) current comparison of salaries of my peers; and, 2) information about unfair hiring practices that affected my starting salary. It wasn’t pretty.

Michael Chandler of the Washington Post recently published a news article titled, More state, city lawmakers say salary history requirements should be banned.” This is an incredibly important advancement because it will inevitably lead to a decrease in “… the nation’s yawning gender pay gap because it discriminates against women who earn less than men from the start of their careers. Over time, even a small wage gap can result in significant amounts of lost income.” He reported that in Summer 2016, Massachusetts was the first state to ban questioning a job candidate’s salary as a basis for future pay. Rather, the employer “will be required to publish salary ranges based on the skills and qualifications associated with the role.” Other states and cities are looking into similar approaches as an important tool to end the wage gap between equally qualified men and women who do similar work.

Massachusetts’ An Act to Establish Pay Equity was passed by the state House of Representatives 158 Yeas to 0 Nays, and by the state Senate 40 Yeas to 0 Nays. The Governor then signed the Act into law on August 1, 2016. Among many other statements requiring fairness in labor and pay, the law states that, “it shall be an unlawful practice for an employer to … seek the wage or salary history of a prospective employee from the prospective employee or a current or former employer or to require that a prospective employee’s prior wage or salary history meet certain criteria.” This was a bipartisan, unanimous no-brainer for the Massachusetts legislature.

What can you do in your state? Pressure your elected officials to enact a similar law. Even if your state’s Republicans and Democrats are battling over bathroom gender assignments, this is something everyone can (and should) get behind. Massachusetts paved the way.

So, what about that high level administrative job that I had applied for earlier in 2016? I was never invited to be interviewed by the search committee. Was it because I was not a good fit for the job? Perhaps I was missing something in my resume that the search committee felt was important. Or was it because the executive search firm’s interviewer felt that I was uncooperative by not answering his unfair question about my current salary? It could have been any or all of those possibilities. I’ll never know.


Babcock L and Laschever S (2003) Women Don’t Ask. Princeton University Press.

Wayne NL (2015) Getting Ahead: The Importance of Self-Promotion.

Chandler M (2016) More state, city lawmakers say salary history requirements should be banned. Washington Post.

The 190th General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Session Law Chapter 177, An Act to Establish Pay Equity.

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This entry was posted on January 4, 2017 by .
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