If you've ever filled out a job application, you've likely been asked about compensation for your current position. If this question made you uncomfortable, there's a good reason for it — that info gives a real upper hand to employers, who can use that number to pay you less than someone else doing a similar job, even if you have the same amount of experience. And you'd likely have no idea of the disparity.

Of course, this tactic can hurt any worker's earning prospects — but women and people of color especially can be kept in a lower-than-they-deserve cycle at job after job. That's because women start off earning less than men (for a variety of reasons, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research or IWPR), and if you start at a lower wage, even if you move up over the years, you end up earning less over time than someone who started at a higher wage in the first place.

Over time, the pay gap between men and women has decreased, but it's snail-like progress. According to an estimate by the IWPR, "... if change continues at the same slow pace as it has done for the past 50 years, it will take 44 years — or until 2059 — for women to finally reach pay parity." Women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of America's families, so this disparity affects millions of kids and dependent adults as well. With that in mind, check out this video explaining the reasons why the wage gap isn’t a myth:

Who gets to decide?

It's a difficult problem to solve. Up until now, the impetus to pay fair wages has, by default, had to come from employers (and that kind of push costs money, so not all employers have been motivated to do so). But we know it's possible. Apple, with 115,000 employees, just did it. According to the company's latest report, “Women earn one dollar for every dollar male employees earn. And underrepresented minorities earn one dollar for every dollar white employees earn.”

So how can we extend pay equality to everyone without getting every hiring manager on board to do the right thing? Take it out of their hands. One very straightforward solution, which benefits everyone, is a simple new pay equity law passed by Massachusetts.

The new rule, signed into law by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, doesn't allow employers to require applicants to disclose how much they made at a previous job. Employers can't find out during any other part of the hiring process either. They can't ask “as a condition of being interviewed, or as a condition of continuing to be considered for an offer of employment,” according to the law, which goes into effect in July 2018.

"This legislation is an important step toward advancing more equal, inclusive and thriving workplaces throughout the Commonwealth for women and families," said Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, in a release.

The new law also allows workers to speak freely about what they're paid, so it will be easier for employees to find out if they're being paid less for the same work.

Obviously, this benefits anyone who may have been paid less than coworkers at a previous job, but it especially benefits women and people of color, since they have historically being paid less than white men — even for the exact same work. Another upside is that if someone wasn't underpaid before, this new law won't effect them.

It also takes the onus off companies and managers who might feel pressured to save the company money where they can.

It's a tidy solution to a messy problem — and it just makes sense.

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Equal pay for equal work: How do we get it?
Massachusetts has a plan.