Women's day in court

Many American employers have not waited for this week's ground-breaking Supreme Court ruling to act in its spirit of justice for working women. But a long-time earnings gap remains, with women who work full time making only 60 cents for every dollar paid to men. Insofar as sex bias contributes to this gap , the court has opened a legal avenue for reducing it. The full promise of the decision is not clear, but without it there would be no promise at all in a whole range of pay discrimination cases.

These are cases that do not come under the Equal Pay Act's provision that women be paid the same as men doing "substantially similar work" -- in other words, equal pay for equal work. Sometimes a company has no men doing the same work as women, and thus it might pay women less that it would otherwise have to.

Women in such a situation appear to be among those who can bring suit under the Supreme Court's decision. It ruled narrowly in the case of Oregon county jail matrons paid substantially less than male guards with different duties. The court merely said the matrons could have their day in court. But it thus paved the way for challenges to employers under the Civil Rights Act without requiring the "equal work" standard.

Rather than digging in until such challenges come, the nation's employers might take the decision as a word to the wise. They might renew efforts against subtler discrimination than unequal-pay-for-equal-work. for example, some jobs such as nurse or secretary have been categorized as women's jobs, and often a whole pay class is held down, though it might require qualifications and performance no lower than a category regarded as a male province. The court did not resolve the underlying issue of "comparable worth" between "men's" and "women's" jobs. But it is an issue that not only employers but unions, courts, and government agencies need to pay more attention to.

For inequality of pay in similar jobs has been found not to be a prime factor in the overall male-female earnings gap. More significant is the way women fit into the occupation spectrum, with women tending to be in lower-paying jobs than men. The question is whether the jobs would be lower-paying anyway, and women just happen to be in them -- or whether they can be kept lower-paying becausem women are in them.

This where "comparable worth" -- the diffficult task of comparing apples and oranges -- comes in again. As some scholars have advocated, there should be a means of determining the value of disparate jobs to see whether discrimination is taking place in unobvious ways.

Are women disproportionately employed in underrated jobs? Should those jail matrons receive no less pay than the male guards? The court has offered a legal boost to finding out. But it is more than a legal task. A whole society needs to continue sensitizing itself to detecting and resisting discrimination -- in keeping with American principles, not just to stay clear of th e law.

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