''Comparable worth.'' It's a shorthand phrase for a theory which, if put into practice, could close the gap in earnings between men and women, its advocates say. Its opponents counter that it could devastate the economy by throwing wage scales into chaos.
In any event, it's at the top of the feminist agenda for the 1980s. And comparable worth has been attracting more attention than ever, at least among public-sector employers, now that a federal judge has ruled that the State of Washington discriminated against women by paying those in predominantly female occupations less than those in predominantly male jobs.
Advocates of ''comparable worth'' say women should get the same pay as men, not only when they are doing the same jobs as men, but when they are doing jobs of ''comparable worth'' - jobs roughly equivalent in terms of skills, education, and working conditions.
Despite all the dramatic social changes of the last 15 years or so, women are still clustered in just a handful of kinds of jobs. For example, some 49 percent of all employed women are working in just two categories - clerical work and commercial cleaning, as in office buildings. Feminists argue that these are low-status, low-paid jobs precisely because women are doing them.
They cite US Bureau of Labor Statistics figures (March 1982) showing that the average annual salary of a secretary (an occupation that is 99 percent female) is $12,000, whereas the average annual salary for a truck driver (a job 98 percent male) is $16,300. And why, they ask, do the same figures show ''household workers'' - a category 95 percent female - pulling down $5,600, while ''janitors'' (85 percent of them male) earn $11,400?
Women won't earn more until the wages of traditionally ''women's'' jobs are upgraded significantly, says Dan Glasner, senior consultant at the Hay Management Consultants in Philadelphia.
Opponents of ''comparable worth'' counter that pay scales are set by the free market. If ''women's work'' - notably secretarial work - pays less than, say, driving a truck, it is because eager young would-be secretaries are flooding the market every day and thus holding down clerical earnings. Feminists don't understand that if men earn more than women, it's because men do physically demanding, dirty, and dangerous work.
If women want to earn more money, let them get jobs driving trucks, these opponents of comparable worth argue. Or let them unionize and demand more money.
Virgil D. Day, a lawyer in New York who has represented management, argues that the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act adequately cover employment discrimination. ''Congress did not intend to make employers depart from the marketplace in setting salaries.'' He cites ''quiet progress on many fronts'' as the result of ''aggressive enforcement'' of the law and of affirmative-action plans.
What opponents of comparable worth are most concerned about is the prospect of employers forced by the courts to restructure their pay scales completely, irrespective of the job market. Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the ''Stop ERA'' movement, has raised the specter of government-ordered wage scales for all. ''But if it's going to be so devastating to correct the situation, isn't that an indication of how serious the problem is?'' one economist (a woman) asks privately.
Mr. Glasner, using government figures, concludes that bridging the wage gap in one year would cost $320 billion and hike inflation 10 points. These figures represent the cost of bringing women's earnings up from 60 cents for every dollar men earn to 92 cents. (The last 8 cents are accounted for by such things as women's lack of seniority.)
Such an adjustment would make for ''huge, huge disruptions'' in the economy, worse than that caused by the oil embargo of 1973. He sees closing the wage gap as something ''thinking men and women within the economy'' feel has to be done; but he argues for spreading out the changes over a few years to make them less disruptive - and, he hopes, not retroactive. ''And then the question arises, Can you find an acceptable way to equalize women's pay by a relative reduction in men's earnings?''
Barbara Bergmann, University of Maryland economics professor, argues that you certainly can. ''State employees have had their wages frozen before.''
Robert Fullinwider of the Center for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland calls comparable worth ''an idea whose time has come,'' but he regards ''sweeping court orders'' as a bad solution to a knotty problem. What's better, he says, ''is a negotiated agreement tailor-made to the contingencies of a particular situation.''
Winn Newman, the Washington, D.C., lawyer who represented the Washington State employees in their suit, finds ''collective bargaining is a much better way to do it,'' but adds that lawsuits or threats of lawsuits have influenced employers into moving on this issue.
''There has been a long history of it being acceptable - to management, to government, to labor, and to women themselves - to pay women less just because they are women,'' says Glasner. And a crucial point in the comparable-worth debate is that the labor market still embodies this assumption.
Men hold the preponderance of manufacturing jobs, whose ''value added'' component is, on the surface at least, more evident, whereas women predominate in back-office ''support'' functions.
Some proponents of comparable worth argue that the supply-and-demand function seems somehow out of whack for typically female jobs. Mr. Newman cites the depressed state of nurses' salaries, despite a nationwide shortage of nurses estimated at some 65,000 to 70,000.
Mr. Fullinwider sees the Washington State case in rather narrow terms; state studies assigned points to various jobs according to skills, educational requirements, and so on. It found its pay scales for largely female jobs were lower than for largely male jobs of the same point value - then went for several years without acting. Fullinwider sees it as a classic case of wage discrimination. ''The court didn't make a judgment on jobs. It just used the state's own (evaluation) system.''
The state has appealed, but meanwhile, a court-appointed master is working out a new salary plan. The settlement, including provision for back pay, is expected to reach nearly $1 billion.
Most observers expect the comparable-worth drama to be played out on the public-sector stage rather than in private business. This is partly because governments employ so many women. ''But also,'' says Fullinwider, ''the government can pay more than the labor market - and they can raise taxes or cut programs to make up the extra revenue.''