Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Comparable Worth

Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez

In the 1970s, it was school bussing. In the 80s, it was affirmative action. And in the 90s, it promises to be the increasingly controversial doctrine of comparable worth--the idea that when jobs filled mostly by women are judged "comparable" to jobs filled mostly by men, wages for both should be the same.

Consider that women's wages today are still only about 66 percent of men's wages. Studies show that factors such as seniority, reduced hours for child care, and maternity leave cannot account for the significant wage gap between men and women. Much of this gap, it appears, is due to large differences between wages paid for traditionally "men's jobs" and those paid for "women's jobs." Comparable worth has been promoted by feminists and advocates of women's rights as the most significant new tool in the struggle to bring women's economic positions up to the level of men's.

Like school bussing and affirmative action, comparable worth is a strategy that attempts to correct past injustices. But implementation of comparable worth risks imposing new costs on society, and raises new questions. Should public and private employers restructure their wage scales, at some costs to themselves--and possibly to society at large--in order to achieve just compensation based on the comparable worth doctrine?

The supporters of comparable worth point to the relatively depressed wages of those in largely female professions, such as health care, child care, and elementary education, compared to the wages of those, such as truck drivers, parking lot attendants, and vocational educators, in mostly male professions. In virtually every case, they claim, jobs that demand comparable skill, education, risk, and responsibility receive vastly different salaries, depending entirely on whether the jobs are filled mostly by men or by women.

For example, in Minnesota, state jobs were rated according to required level of education, training, stress, customer or client contact, and responsibility. To cite just one example of the findings, registered nurses and vocational education teachers were each rated the same, but the salary for nurses, who were mostly women, was only $1732 per month, while the salary for vocational education teachers, who were mostly men, was $2260 per month. Numerous other studies show that the greater the concentration of women in a job, the lower the wage employers pay that job.

Such sex-based pay discrepancies, say the advocates of comparable worth, are unjust because society has an obligation to treat people equally in the absence of any relevant differences in their situations.

Advocates of comparable worth claim that women have been victimized by a socialization process that unjustly steers them towards precisely those fields that are the least lucrative. It is true that gradual shifts in society have allowed more women to enter higher paying fields. But the supply of jobs in these occupations is far too small, social and economic barriers to women attempting to enter such occupations continue to exist, and women who have been in their careers for many years find it difficult to shift to new occupations even when institutional barriers are removed.

Not only is the current system unjust to women, these advocates argue, but it also imposes significant costs on society. For instance, the knowledge that these wage discrepancies exist can lead to resentment, poorer job performance, and tension and conflict between the sexes. In addition, say comparable worth advocates, these wage discrepancies result in several unfortunate consequences for both the workers and society. For one thing, many men and women motivated by high salary potential rather than genuine interest or aptitude now enter professions for which they are ill-suited. Such misplaced incentives frequently lead to job dissatisfaction and poor job performance. Furthermore, depressed wages in fields such as child care and elementary education lead to less qualified people entering these jobs, and to personnel shortages in fields that are essential to our society's future.

Comparable worth advocates point to other social costs which they attribute to the pay inequities of the current wage system. They argue that many women unable to support themselves and their families on prevailing wage scales are forced to accept public assistance. Inequitable wages, they maintain, like environmental pollution, cost society millions of dollars and are mostly financed by higher taxes.

To achieve a fairer treatment of female workers, more efficiently manage our human resources, and reduce the social costs of the current system, the supporters of comparable worth argue that the wages for workers in underpaid "women's jobs" must be brought up to the levels of wages in comparable "men's jobs," based on objective measures of the value of the jobs and the skills they require.

Opponents of comparable worth dispute the claim that the current wage system is unfair. According to those opposing comparable worth, women are free to choose whatever work they wish. The pay differences among jobs are not the result of discrimination, they maintain, but of market forces, especially the excessive demand among women for certain kinds of work. Moreover, they say, the significance of these wage discrepancies is greatly exaggerated, since numerous nondiscriminatory factors affect the wage differential. Many women, they argue, have entered the work force much more recently than men, so their wages are typically lower. Women also tend to have less continuity in their jobs, because of maternity leave and child rearing responsibilities, which again causes a differential in wages, while men have tended to invest more in their careers, in terms of education and training, so that they are able to compete more effectively than women for higher paying jobs. As long as there are laws that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sex, women have every opportunity to choose any job that they are capable of performing.

In fact, these opponents claim while the current system is fair, comparable worth threatens to impose injustice on employers. Any radical restructuring of pay scales would place an unfair burden on employers by raising their costs, and would unfairly impinge upon their freedom to earn their livelihood as they choose.

Furthermore, the implementation of any comparable worth plan would interfere with the free market mechanisms that are required for economic efficiency, and would thereby damage our economy. Alter the free market system, the critics of comparable worth argue, and too many workers will be attracted to the wrong jobs, and not enough will be attracted to jobs that need incentives to attract qualified personnel.

The opponents of comparable worth also claim that implementing comparable worth programs on a national scope would raise payrolls for employers, and these increased costs would lead to huge losses for private employers and higher deficits in the public sector. Massive economic dislocations would follow, possibly causing a severe recession, putting many people out of work, and driving some companies out of business. The net effects would be to impose severe and unnecessary hardships on all Americans, including the very individuals that advocates of comparable worth wish to help.

In the last ten years, a trend toward comparable worth programs has been evident in the US, as the issue has been debated in state and local legislatures, integrated into collective bargaining agreements, and tested in the courts. City employees in Chicago, San Francisco, and San Jose, and state employees in Michigan and New York, among others, have successfully negotiated pay adjustments for predominantly female job categories. The private sector has been more resistant to comparable worth adjustments, but in at least one case involving comparable worth claims, the Sumitomo Corporation of America settled a longstanding dispute over pay inequities in jobs filled mostly by women by putting a comparable worth program into place.

In 1983, a federal court found the State of Washington guilty of discrimination and required the state to implement a comparable worth program. But the case was reversed on appeal, and settled out of court when the state agreed "voluntarily" to bring the wages of "women's occupations" into line with "men's occupations."

To date, then, the courts have failed to rule definitively on the comparable worth issue. The argument continues, with one side advocating remedial action to increase equity while the other side maintains that the current system is fair, and that any attempt to alter the system will cause great harm to society. As women continue to push for equality in society, it is certain that new comparable worth cases will come before the courts, and that the issue will remain on the public agenda. If, as a society, we decide to move toward comparable worth, it may profoundly alter our basic social and economic structures, and challenge fundamental notions about how we should determine the value of work.

Further reading:

Pay Equity for Women's Jobs Finds Success Outside Courts The New York Times, (Oct. 7, 1989) p. 1.

Michael Evan Gold, A Dialogue on Comparable Worth, (Ithaca, New York ILR Press, New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, 1983).

Robert E. Williams and Lorence L. Kessler, A Closer Look at Comparable Worth (Washington DC: National Foundation for the Study of Equal Employment Policy,1984).


This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V.3, N. 1 Winter 1990

Nov 9, 2015