By Sen. Deb Fischer
April 11, 2016
IDEAS
Deb Fischer is a U.S. Senator from Nebraska

Tuesday is national Equal Pay Day. A look at history reveals the strong advancements women have made in the workplace over the years: Women lead in the boardroom, run small businesses and serve in the halls of Congress in record numbers. But, as more women advance, it’s also clear there is more work to do on equal pay.

All Americans believe in the principle of equal pay for equal work. Over the past year, the conversation has evolved and broken into the public domain. From Hollywood studios to soccer stadiums to the Senate floor, women are speaking out.

These developments have revealed that many Americans are in the dark when it comes to comparing salary information. Men and women sit at the negotiating table armed with their experience, expertise and accomplishments. But most have little idea how their compensation compares to their peers. Those who do inquire about this information often worry that they may face retribution for merely discussing salary information.

This issue came to the forefront last fall, as a result of the hacking of Sony Pictures. Leaked documents revealed dramatic differences in compensation between male and female actors working on the same films. Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence was one of the actors who discovered she had been paid significantly less than her male counterparts. Because of this revelation, Lawrence has brought attention to this issue, specifically the importance of persevering through the negotiation process for the pay you deserve.

Members of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team have also joined this conversation. Just a few weeks ago, five of America’s most decorated female soccer players filed a federal complaint accusing the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) of wage discrimination. In their case, they cited reports from the USSF, which showed that female athletes were paid 40% less than male athletes, even though the female teams generated more revenue.

These women were compelled to act because they were able to see the salary disparities between them and their male counterparts. The facts empowered them to advocate for the salaries they deserve.

Not everyone has this information. An attorney in Omaha or an architect in Minneapolis can’t rely on Sports Illustrated or a rogue hacker to find how her salary compares to her coworkers or others in her field. The threat of retaliation casts an invisible shadow, preventing open discussion of wages and allowing retribution against employees who openly discuss it. Many employees are left with little more than gossip, perception and lost opportunities.

I want to embolden everyone, men and women alike, to seek out the information they need to be their own advocates at the negotiation table.

To be clear, I am not advocating for new mandates or harmful interjections of the government into the operations of private businesses and organizations. I believe the free market should be left to grow and prosper without the threat of a micromanaging federal government.

But, just as the market has prospered due to the free exchange of ideas and information, so, too, should workers be allowed to thrive with the free exchange of dialogue.

As the saying goes: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. If you want to know how your salary compares to your colleagues, you should have every right to ask. It’s as basic as the First Amendment.

Promoting transparency is a powerful tool to help American workers fight for the salaries they earned. Employers and employees alike would be better able to identify what trends or factors are actually contributing to wage disparities where they exist. No meaningful change countering bias or overcoming an opportunity gap can occur without this foundation of knowledge. This knowledge would also allow workers to be their own best advocates and negotiate salaries more effectively.

I am a firm believer in conservative principles and limited government. I also think Congress can promote policies that will make life easier and more flexible for American families.

That’s why I have introduced legislation, known as the Workplace Advancement Act, which would update our current laws and strengthen the protections against retaliation. This legislation breaks down the barriers to open dialogue by allowing employees to ask questions and gain information.

We now have a real opportunity to make a difference for both men and women who work hard, every day, to provide for their families. Above all, we can help them succeed and prosper in the workforce while being secure in the knowledge they are fairly compensated for their work.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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