NEW YORK (Reuters) — American actress Jennifer Lawrence reignited a national debate on equal pay this month when she criticized Hollywood's gender wage gap after learning she was paid millions less than her male co-stars in the 2013 film "American Hustle."
Research shows that women earn less than men in most professions but if the Academy Award winner worked in an industry or company where pay wasn't a tightly guarded secret the gap may not have been such a surprise.
Lawrence discovered the pay discrepancy when hacked Sony Pictures emails were published. In transparent pay companies like supermarket chain Whole Foods Market or social media software startup Buffer salaries are posted internally, or online for everyone to see.
"It removes any opportunities for discrimination," said Carolyn Kopprasch, who works in customer service as the chief happiness officer at Buffer, which publishes salaries, pricing and revenue online.
Employment and legal experts say a transparent pay policy could help close the wage gap and put women on an equal pay scale with men.
"I think that radical transparency would go a long way to rooting out employers paying men and women differently for the same work," said Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel for the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Equal Pay Act was passed half a century ago but in 2014 women working full time in the United States were typically paid 79 cents for every dollar a man earned for equal work, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR).
Although the pay gap has narrowed from 1960 when women earned about 60 cents for every dollar a man made, the IWPR calculates that if change continues at the same pace women will not reach pay parity until 2059.
Like Lawrence, many women aren't aware of what their male counterparts earn because salary is a taboo topic. About half of workers questioned in a 2014 IWPR poll said discussing salary information is discouraged or prohibited and could even lead to punishment.
Eliot Burdett, the CEO of U.S. employment company Peak Sales Recruiting, said bringing pay out of the shadows would put women on a more equal footing with men.
"It would force the focus to be on merit alone," he added.
At Buffer, Kopprasch found that transparency made salary a non-issue for everyone because people weren't doubting, whispering or speculating about it.
"There have not been disputes or any crazy things that have come out of it," she said. "There is not really a downside."
Martin said even if companies don't post all employee salaries online, greater transparency about how pay is set could be useful in many ways, including helping workers negotiate better contracts.
"When someone as high profile as Jennifer Lawrence is facing this issue it is a real wake-up call to people around the country that unfortunately sex discrimination in pay is not a thing of the past," she added.
Whether they like it or not, Burdett is convinced more firms will adopt salary transparency.
"With social media and the Internet the definition of privacy has changed," he explained. "More companies are going to realize if they are open about their compensation they are going to be able to use that as a competitive tool in attracting talent and that will make a difference in the bottom line."