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

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

During the past two decades, many feminists have answeredthese questions with one word: discrimination. They have feltthat the only appropriate means for bringing about change andequality 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 thelabor force. In 1963, for example, Congress passed the EqualPay Act, requiring equal pay for the same work. Title VII ofthe Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964, prohibited employers fromdiscriminating against women.

Feminists in the 1980s, though, are stating that these regulations have not been effective because women on average stillearn approximately 59 percent as much as men do, and are largelyconcentrated in certain types of jobs. Members of the Businessand 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 barrierto successful litigation and bargaining for equal pay for women.Because the jobs of both sexes are not identical, it has beendifficult to demonstrate the discriminatory basis of women'swages."[1]

To deal with this, many feminists are focusing on what JanetGray Hayes, former mayor of San Jose, California, calls the "issueof the 80s"--equal pay for work of comparable worth. The conceptof comparable worth differs from that of equal pay for equal worknot only in definition but also in how it would affect women ifit were passed into law. Equal pay for equal work deals withpaying a woman the same wage as a man, or another woman, who isdoing exactly the same job. Comparable worth focuses on payingan entire profession or occupation the same wage rate as a secondprofession or occupation, both of which are determined by someoutside authority to be of the same worth or value to an employer.

Deborah Walker

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