Policy Analysis No. 38

Value and Opportunity: The Issue of Comparable Pay for Comparable Worth

By Deborah Walker
May 31, 1984

Executive Summary

There are few, if any, men who would qualify for the position of Playboy bunny, and there are few, if any, women who would qualify for the position of male lead in a motion picture. However, there are many other occupations in which gender may be irrelevant. People in these jobs include nurses, truck drivers, lawyers, secretaries, and economists. Why is it, then, that these jobs are each characterized by a disproportionate number of males or females? And why do many female-dominated occupations command lower wages than do male-dominated occupations?

During the past two decades, many feminists have answered these questions with one word: discrimination. They have felt that the only appropriate means for bringing about change and equality for women in the work force has been government regulation. The 1960s were characterized by one law after another, each seen as a step toward bettering women’s position in the labor force. In 1963, for example, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, requiring equal pay for the same work. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964, prohibited employers from discriminating against women.

Feminists in the 1980s, though, are stating that these regulations have not been effective because women on average still earn approximately 59 percent as much as men do, and are largely concentrated in certain types of jobs. Members of the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation blame this “lack of progress” on poor enforcement of the regulations and on “the imprecise language of the Equal Pay Act.” The organization also claims that e “Segregation of ‘men’s jobs’ and ‘women’s jobs’ has been a barrier to successful litigation and bargaining for equal pay for women. Because the jobs of both sexes are not identical, it has been difficult to demonstrate the discriminatory basis of women’s wages.”[1]

To deal with this, many feminists are focusing on what Janet Gray Hayes, former mayor of San Jose, California, calls the “issue of the 80s”—equal pay for work of comparable worth. The concept of comparable worth differs from that of equal pay for equal work not only in definition but also in how it would affect women if it were passed into law. Equal pay for equal work deals with paying a woman the same wage as a man, or another woman, who is doing exactly the same job. Comparable worth focuses on paying an entire profession or occupation the same wage rate as a second profession or occupation, both of which are determined by some outside authority to be of the same worth or value to an employer.

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Deborah Walker is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Market Processes at George Mason University.