Quiet Progress Toward Pay Equity

WHATEVER happened to comparable worth? The doctrine of comparable worth, or to put it more fully, the doctrine of equal pay for work of comparable worth, was touted a few years back as the major women's issue of the 1980s. It hasn't turned out quite that way, but it's not a dead issue, either.

The idea behind comparable worth, or pay equity, is that some jobs are paid less than they deserve because they are performed mostly by women. If these jobs were fairly evaluated according to their skills, responsibility, and educational requirements, the theory goes, we would see wholesale upgrading of women's earnings. Teachers and nurses would be paid at least as well as school janitors and truck drivers.

Earlier this month, in the largest comparable-worth lawsuit in the United States, a federal judge ruled that State of California had not deliberately underpaid its female employees. The California ruling came a few days after dismissal of a pay-equity suit by the United Auto Workers in Michigan.

But such reversals notwithstanding, there remains an active movement toward pay equity. The National Committee on Pay Equity reports that some $450 million has been allocated over the past eight years for the upgrading of women's pay.

And more and more unions are putting pay equity on their collective-bargaining agenda. Many would say that that's where the matter belongs. Obviously, unions and employers are free to bargain on whatever they please.

It's hard to avoid noticing, however, that many advocates of this approach are generally opposed to unions; one suspects that they favor it because they think it won't work. Some legal and semantic fog surrounds the whole issue. If ``Comparable Worth'' were a would-be actress, and I were her agent, I'd insist she change her name to something that looks better up in lights.

Comparable worth differs from equal pay for equal work. The Equal Pay Act requires that a man and woman side by side on an assembly line, for instance, doing the same task with the same skill and experience be paid the same. (Don't laugh; it was progress at the time.)

But many advocates find a legal basis for comparable worth in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In this view, compensating ``women's work'' at lower rates because it's done by women amounts to sex discrimination in employment, which Title VII forbids. The classic argument against pay equity, by whatever name, is that it disrupts market forces. If salaries for certain jobs are held down to pay more for other jobs, then shortages will develop; employers won't be able to fill positions. But what makes anyone think we don't have shortages of teachers and nurses?

We need to be to be careful to distinguish economic value from inherent worth. Employers who insist they can't offer more aren't necessarily being stingy, and would-be employees who say they can't work for less aren't just greedy.

But unquestionably, one of the attitudes that market forces reflect is that it's acceptable to pay women less than men. Many have heard that American women earn 59 cents for every dollar men earn. The ratio has improved in recent years, by some estimates, and can be expected to improve further. But that three-fifths proportion has had a longevity that is almost eerie. The Bible records the Lord telling Moses that the ``estimation'' of a male of working age ``shall be fifty shekels of silver'' and that of the female, thirty shekels - see Lev. 27:1-4.

More recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that an executive compensation survey found that ``women at the vice-presidential level and above earn 42 percent less than male counterparts'' - in other words, 58 cents on the dollar.

Overwhelmingly, women are in the job market for the same reason as men, namely to support themselves and their families. The arguments that the 60 percent ratio is justified by women's different career patterns hold less water every year.

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