Comparable Worth

views updated May 29 2018


"Comparable worth" is one approach to increasing pay equity between jobs done primarily by women and minorities and those done primarily by majority men. It refers to equalizing compensation for jobs requiring comparable levels of effort, skill, and responsibility. The concept of comparable worth defines "equal work" as "work of equivalent value," a broader concept than limiting "equal work" to meaning the "same work." Comparable worth uses job-evaluation methods to establish equivalencies of different jobs in order to identify and correct disparities in pay between jobs held primarily by women and minority men and jobs held primarily by nonminority men. It is worth noting that the term pay equity is often used in conjunction with discussions of comparable worth; it usually refers not only to comparable worth but also to other approaches to achieving equity and justice in wages. Pay equity is the best subject heading or "key word" to use when doing further research on the topic of comparable worth.

Proponents of using comparable worth to establish pay equity argue that 1) at least some part of the lower wages in female-dominated jobs and occupations is due to pay discrimination against women, and 2) job evaluation systems can determine the equivalency of different jobs and thus identify the jobs and occupations where this form of discrimination exists.

The issue of comparable worth arose in response to obvious differences in the rewards for jobs held primarily by women and those held primarily by men—even when those jobs required the same or similar levels of education, skill, and responsibility. Advocates of comparable worth and pay equity argue that these wage differences are based on historical and current discrimination in the setting of wages for jobs held primarily by women and minorities. That is, jobs in which workers are primarily women and minorities have been, and remain, systematically undervalued relative to equivalent jobs held by majority men. This undervaluation depresses the wages in jobs done by women and minorities relative to the wages for jobs historically performed by white men. Thus, discrimination is embedded in the current wage structure of jobs (Remick 1984; Marini 1989). Continued job and occupational segregation by sex, combined with the continued systematic undervaluation of jobs held by women and minorities, is thereby a cause of continued inequality and a form of labor market discrimination.

The argument that discrimination is the basis for the inequality of wages between men's and women's jobs is not new. In the 1922 presidential address to the British Association of Economists, F.Y. Edgeworth spoke on "Equal Pay to Men and Women for Equal Work." Edgeworth outlined three major conclusions regarding wage inequality between men and women. First, that men and women work in different jobs, albeit jobs that often require similar levels of effort and skill. Second, that jobs held by women are paid far less than those held by men. Third, that removing overt discrimination would be unlikely to equalize wages for men and women fully (Edgeworth 1922). The findings of recent empirical studies have generally supported these three conclusions.

There is considerable evidence demonstrating that men and women work in different occupations. Comparisons of occupational segregation by sex in the United States since 1900 show that levels of segregation have been persistent through the 1960s and 1980s (Gross 1968; Jacobs 1989). During the 1980s more than half of the workers of one sex would have had to change occupations in order to equalize the distribution of men and women across all occupations (Jacobs 1989). Researchers using more specific job titles within firms have found that almost no men and women work together in the same job in the same firm (Bielby and Baron 1986).

On average, women continue to earn substantially less than men. Women earned 62 percent of what men earned in 1975 and just over 75 percent of what men earned in 1995 (Figart and Kahn 1997). The concentration of women in low-paying, female-dominated occupations has been found to account for a substantial portion of this income difference. The amount of the income gap between men and women explained by the sex segregation of occupations varies from 25 percent to over 33 percent across many studies of this issue (Sorensen 1986; Figart and Kahn 1997). The remainder of the difference between men's and women's average earnings is due to other factors, such as differences in the overall skills and experience individual men and women bring with them to the labor market.

Empirical studies have examined whether the gap in wages between female-dominated and male-dominated occupations is based on differences in the occupations with regard to the skills required or the work environments. Treiman and colleagues (1984), in an evaluation of the effects of differences in characteristics of male and female occupations on wages, found that "about 40 percent of the earnings gap between male-and female-dominated occupations can be attributed to differences in job characteristics and 60 percent to differences in the rate of return on these characteristics." That is, he found that the premium paid for skills in male-dominated occupations was higher than that paid for the same skills in female-dominated occupations. Other research has confirmed the findings that specific skills (such as dealing with the public) or requirements (such as having a high school diploma) increase wages more in a male-dominated occupation than in a female-dominated occupation (McLaughlin 1978; Beck and Kemp 1986). Other possible explanations for differences in wages between male-dominated and female-dominated occupations—such as that female-dominated occupations have greater nonmonetary compensations (such as vacation, sick leave, flexibility in working hours) (Jencks, Perman and Rainwater 1988) or that they are more accommodating to intermittent careers (England 1982)—have not been supported by empirical studies.

The conclusion of J.S. Mill in 1865, as quoted by Edgeworth in 1922—"The remuneration of the peculiar employments of women is always, I believe, greatly below that of employments of equal skill and equal disagreeableness carried on by men."—is similar to the conclusion reached by the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences committee report in 1981:

"[Such] differential earnings patterns have existed for many decades. They may arise in part because women and minority men are paid less than white men for doing the same (or very similar) jobs within the same firm, or in part because the job structure is substantially segregated by sex, race, and ethnicity and the jobs held mainly by women and minority men pay less than the jobs held mainly by nonminority men" (Treiman and Hartmann 1981, p.92).

The evidence is fairly conclusive that occupational-level wage discrimination exists—that is, that skills and requirements are less well rewarded in jobs held primarily by women than they are in jobs held primarily by men. Comparable worth advocates argue that applying job-evaluation methods is a viable method for reducing this form of wage discrimination. This is clarified in Helen Remick's proposed working definition of comparable worth as "the application of a single, bias-free point factor job evaluation system within a given establishment, across job families, both to rank-order jobs and to set salaries"(1984, p.99).

Job-evaluation methods are well established and have been used for decades to establish equivalencies across jobs. Actual methods of job evaluation differ, but the usual approach is to start by describing all jobs within a given organization. Next, a list of important job requirements is developed and jobs are rated on each requirement. For example, one requirement could be the use of mathematics. In this case each job would be rated from "low" (e.g. addition and subtraction of whole numbers) to "high" (e.g., the use of differential equations). Most job-evaluation methods include job requirements such as level of education, skills, level of responsibility, and the environment in which the work is performed. Some job-evaluation methods also include such characteristics of job incumbents as average education, training, and experience. More complex job-evaluation systems also consider how jobs rank with regard to fringe benefits (e.g. sick leave), hours (e.g. shift work), training and promotion opportunities, hazards, autonomy (e.g. can leave work without permission), authority (e.g. supervises others), and organizational setting (e.g. organizational size) (see Jencks et al. 1988). After each job is rated and given a certain number of "points" for each requirement, the points are then added into an overall "score" for each job. These scores are then weighted based on the importance assigned to a particular job attribute. Each job then receives a total number of points based on all of the appropiate factors in order to compare the value to the firm of different jobs. These composite scores are then used to rank jobs in order to help determine appropriate wages (Blau and Ferber 1986). This makes it possible to compare wages paid for jobs with very different—but comparable—content. In addition to considering the training and work requirements for jobs within the firm, systems of job evaluation often also take into account whatever information is available on prevailing wages for different types of labor. The use of job evaluation is neither new nor unusual, and currently job evaluation is often used to determine pay scales by governments and by many businesses. Job evaluations are primarily used when employers cannot rely on the market to establish wages. (See Spilerman 1986, for a discussion of the types of organizations that determine wages based on nonmarket mechanisms.) Employers must determine wages, for example, when positions are filled entirely from within an organizational unit (e.g. through promotion of an existing workforce) or when they fill jobs that are unique to a particular firm. In these cases, "going rates" for all jobs are not always available in local labor markets.

There are at least two critical limitations to using job-evaluation methods in establishing comparable worth. First, it is difficult to eliminate the effects of past practices on the identification and the weighting of important job characteristics. Existing job-evaluation schemes have been criticized for undervaluing, or not even considering, the skills and abilities that are emphasized in some female jobs (Beatty and Beatty 1984; Stienberg 1992). For example, at one time the coding in the job-evaluation system used in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles rated the primarily male occupation "Dog Pound Attendant" as requiring a higher level of complexity with regard to working with data, people, and things than the primarily female occupations of "Nursery School Teacher" and "Practical Nurse"—which were rated as having minimal or no relationship with data, people, or things (Miller et al. 1980). Second, because jobevaluation methods are used within a particular firm or organization, they do not address wage inequalities across firms or organizations. This particularly limits the scope of comparable worth because, with the exception of governments (which often employ individuals across a wide range of occupational categories), most organizations are staffed by individuals in a relatively narrow span of occupations. For example, jobs in the textile and poultry-processing industries, usually held by women, and jobs in the lumber industry, usually held by men, could have the same overall scores in terms of job characteristics. However, because these jobs are usually not in the same organization, it is unlikely that job-evaluation methods could be used to equalize wages for these jobs.

Comparable-worth methods have been used in a number of legal actions in attempts to increase the equivalencies of wages for jobs held primarily by women and those held primarily by men. The outcomes of these cases have been mixed (see Remick 1984; Heen 1984; Steinberg 1987; and Figart and Kahn 1997 for reviews and discussions of cases). In the United States, the right of "equal pay for equal work" is provided by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. An important legal action based on the premise of comparable worth was the Supreme Court ruling in the County of Washington v Gunther, 452 U.S. 161 (1981). This ruling removed a major legal obstacle to comparable worth as the basis of equalizing wages. Although it did not endorse the comparable worth approach, it did rule that a man and woman need not do "equal work" in order to establish pay discrimination under Title VII (Heen 1984). Subsequent lower court rulings have not resulted in clear-cut decisions regarding comparable worth, and at present it seems unlikely that, in the United States, court decisions will mandate the comparable-worth approach. Legal and legislative actions based on comparable worth and pay equity also have emerged in countries other than the United States. Canada included a provision for equal pay for work of equal value in the Canadian Human Rights Act of 1977 (see Cadieux 1984; and Ontario Pay Equity Commission 1998). The implementation of this legislation has resulted in significant decisions regarding the need to increase wages in female-dominated occupations—both in private industry and in the government. However, the implementation of these decisions has not been without difficulty. For example, the government and the government-workers union of the Northwest Territories were, in early 1998, in disagreement with regard to whether the evaluation system used by the government to establish comparable worth was biased (Government of the Northwest Territories 1998).

Despite its limitations and difficulties in implementation, the concept of comparable worth as a basis for pay equity remains important in public policy initiatives. The National Committee on Pay Equity (1999), the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (1999), and other organizations provide information and support for advocates of comparable worth. As one approach to increasing pay equity, comparable-worth applications have the potential for identifying and correcting one of the most persistent bases for the disparity between earnings for majority men and earnings for women and minorities.


Beatty, R. W., and J. R. Beatty 1984 "Some Problems with Contemporary Job Evaluation Systems." In H. Remick, ed., Comparable Worth and Wage Discrimination: Technical Possibilities and Political Realities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Bielby, W. T., and J. N. Baron 1986 "Men and Women at Work: Sex Segregation and Statistical Discrimination." American Journal of Sociology 91:759–99.

Blau, F. D., and M. A. Ferber 1986 The Economics of Women, Men and Work. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Cadieux, Rita 1984 "Canada's Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value Law." In H. Remick, ed., Comparable Worth and Wage Discrimination: Technical Possibilities and Political Realities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Edgeworth, F. Y. 1922 "Equal Pay to Men and Women for Equal Work." The Economic Journal 32:431–56.

England, P. 1982 "The Failure of Human Capital Theory to Explain Occupational Sex Segregation." Journal of Human Resources 17:358–70.

Figart, Sarah M., and Peggy Kahn 1997 Contesting the Market: Pay Equity and the Politics of Economic Restructuring. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press.

Government of the Northwest Territories, last edited April, 1998.

Gross, E. 1968 "Plus ça change. . . ? The Sexual Structure of Occupations Over Time." Social Problems 16:198–208.

Heen, M. 1984 "A Review of Federal Court Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964." In H. Remick, ed., Comparable Worth and Wage Discrimination: Technical Possibilities and Political Realities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Jacobs, J. A. 1989 "Long Term Trends in Occupational Segregation by Sex." American Journal of Sociology 95:160–73.

Jencks, C., L. Perman, and L. Rainwater 1988 "What is a Good Job? A New Measure of Labor-Market Success." American Journal of Sociology 93:132–257.

Kemp, A. A., and E. M. Beck 1986 "Equal Work, Unequal Pay: Gender Discrimination Within Work-simi-lar Occupations." Work and Occupations 13:324–347.

Marini, M. M. 1989 "Sex Differences in Earnings in the U.S." In W. R. Scott, ed., Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 15. Palo Alto, Calif.: Annual Reviews.

McLaughlin, S. 1978 "Occupational Sex Identification and the Assessment of Male and Female Earnings Inequality."American Sociological Review 43:909–921.

Miller, Ann R., D. J. Treiman, P. S. Cain, and P. A. Roos 1980 Work, Jobs, and Occupations: A Critical Review of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

National Committee on Pay Equity,, as of February, 1999.

Ontario Pay Equity Commission,, last modified December 28, 1998.

Remick, H. (ed.) 1984 Comparable Worth and Wage Discrimination: Technical Possibilities and Political Realities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

——1984 "Major Issues in a priori Applications." In H. Remick, ed., Comparable Worth and Wage Discrimination: Technical Possibilities and Political Realities 99–117. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Sorensen, E. 1986 "Implementing Comparable Worth: A Survey of Recent Job Evaluation Studies." American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings 76:364–367.

Spilerman, S. 1986 "Organizational Rules and the Features of Work Careers." Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 5:41–102.

Steinberg, Ronnie, et al. 1985 The New York State Comparable Worth Study: Final Report. New York: Center for Women in Government.

Treiman, D. J., and H. I. Hartman 1981 Woman, Work and Wages: Equal Pay for Jobs of Equal Value. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

U.S. Bureau of the Census 1987 Male-Female Differences in Work Experience Occupation and Earnings: 1984. Current Population Report P–70, no. 10. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

——1986 Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1987, 107th ed. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Nancy E. Durbin

Barbara Melber

Comparable Worth

views updated May 14 2018


The idea that men and women should receive equal pay when they perform work that involves comparable skills and responsibility or that is of comparable worth to the employer; also known as pay equity.

Many jobs are segregated by sex. For example, approximately 80 percent of all office secretaries are female, and approximately 99 percent of all construction workers are male. Both jobs demand valuable, if different, skills. However, the annual income of a secretary is only three-fifths that of a construction worker. Comparable worth seeks to remedy this and other sex-based wage inequities by identifying and eliminating sex as an element in wage setting.

The term comparable worth describes the notion that sex-segregated jobs should be reanalyzed to determine their worth to an employer. In practice, comparable worth consists of raising wages for traditionally female-dominated jobs to the level of those for comparable male-dominated jobs. Comparable worth should not be confused with equal pay for equal work. Rather, comparable worth policies promote equal pay for comparable work.

Proponents of comparable worth argue that sex discrimination in wage setting has been built into society and has tainted the law of supply and demand. Women have endured centuries of devaluation, and the devaluation is reflected in the value attached to work traditionally performed by females. According to supporters, wages should be reset after comprehensive studies are made and statistical analyses undertaken to better reflect the true value produced by an employee.

Some critics of comparable worth maintain that wage fairness is achieved by allowing free-market forces to set the value of jobs. They argue that employers, not the courts or legislatures, should set wages and that sufficient legislation is already in place to prevent discrimination based on sex. They further argue that wage disparities are largely a result of innocent forces, such as differences in experience and education, the tendency of women to make educational choices that do not interfere with childbearing and child rearing, and the tendency of women to leave and reenter the job market more frequently than men.

Other critics of comparable worth, including some women's rights advocates, argue that comparable worth efforts are well-intentioned but misplaced. According to these opponents, the best way for women to win wage equality is to integrate fully into all sectors of the economy. Comparable worth may work to the immediate benefit of those in traditionally "female" jobs, critics contend, but it fails to promote long-term advancement for women.

Generally, employees in a wage system based on comparable worth are paid according to job evaluations that concentrate on the differences between sex-segregated jobs. The job evaluations are conducted by vocational experts who examine the various characteristics of each job in the system, including the skill, education, and effort required; the level of independent decision making required; the working conditions; and accountability. The job evaluations yield a point total for each job, which is used to determine employee compensation.

In 1955, the U.S. census bureau published, for the first time, the ratio of women's to men's full-time, year-round, median annual earnings. The figures revealed that women were earning 64 percent of what men were earning. This imbalance persisted. In 1960, women aged 25 to 34 earned 65 percent of what men in the same age group earned. In 1980, the same women, now aged 45 to 54, were earning only 54 percent as much as men in the same age group. Census figures for 1980 also disclosed that full-time, year-round female professionals were earning less than semiskilled male blue-collar workers, and female college graduates were earning less than male high school graduates who had not attended college.

Women's pay became a national issue after the enormous contribution of women to the workforce in world war ii, and a simmering controversy shortly after the 1955 census report. The U.S. Congress took action by passing the equal pay act of 1963 (29 U.S.C.A. § 206(d)) (EPA). The EPA mandates the same pay for all persons who do the same work, without regard to sex. This means that an employer may not discriminate between employees on the basis of sex by paying lower wages to women who perform the same work as men. In 1964, Congress enacted title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-2(a)), which provides that employers may not discriminate in employment practices on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. Like the EPA, title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against women by paying them less than they pay males who perform the same work.

Women's rights advocates and labor union leaders were inspired by these bold federal acts and sought to extend them. In the fight against sex-based wage discrimination, women began to demand not only equal pay for equal work, but also equal pay for comparable work. States, cities, and towns began experimenting with the idea of wage restructuring based on comparable worth studies. In 1977, with the support of eleanor holmes norton (D-D.C.), then chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), comparable worth came to national attention. Women's rights advocates adopted the slogan Fifty-nine Cents, which represented, according to Judy Goldsmith, past president of the national organization for women (NOW), "the plain frightening fact that most women are paid just over half as much as men for the very same work." The comparable worth movement grew, but not without opposition. In 1985, President ronald reagan described comparable worth as a "cockamamie idea."

The state of Washington was at the forefront of the comparable worth movement. In 1974, Washington began a study of sex-related differences for a selected group of sex-segregated positions in the state civil service. The study revealed that female employees in job classes requiring the same level of skill, effort, and responsibility earned 25 to 35 percent less than employees in comparable male-dominated positions. Despite these figures, the state legislature declined to implement comparable worth laws. Two more studies were conducted, in 1976 and 1980, and both corroborated the findings of the first study.

The Washington Legislature continued to reject comparable worth. In 1981, the EEOC refused to take action on charges filed with it against the state of Washington by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE). On July 20, 1982, AFSCME and WFSE filed a class action suit against the state. The case was initiated by eight women and one man on behalf of all the male and female employees under the jurisdiction of the Washington Department of Personnel and the Washington Higher Education Personnel Board, who had worked or were working in positions that were 70 percent or more female. The government employees alleged that the state had discriminated against employees in female-dominated jobs by paying them lower wages than employees in comparable male-dominated jobs. This, according to the state employees, violated title VII of the civil rights act of 1964. The District Court for the Western District of Washington agreed and awarded $400 million in back pay to female state employees.

The state of Washington appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned the award (AFSCME, 770 F.2d 1401 [1985]). In its opinion, the Ninth Circuit court declared that an employer may set wages according to the prevailing market rate even if that market discriminates against women. According to the court, the value of a particular job is only one of several elements that influence the wages that the job commands. Another element, noted the court, is job availability. The court further recognized that the state in this case did not itself create any economic disparity. Although the state was free to institute a comparable worth policy, it could not be obliged "to eliminate an economic inequality that it did not create." Ultimately, the court held that, absent a discriminatory motive, it would not interfere with the state's decision to base wages on prevailing market standards.

After the appeals court decision, AFSCME, WFSE, and the state of Washington negotiated a comparable worth framework for state employees. The framework was based on the state's plan, which called for a gradual move to restructure its employees' wages on the basis of comparable worth. Washington now maintains a comparable worth statute, Revised Code of Washington, section 41.06.155, which mandates the achievement of comparable worth for all state government employees.

San Jose, California, was another early battleground for comparable worth proponents. In 1979, city government workers went on strike to protest wage disparities. After a nine-day strike, the city agreed to provide pay equity adjustments and other salary adjustments to city workers. In 1983 and 1990, additional comparable worth adjustments were gained by the San Jose chapter of AFSCME.

Comparable worth has been won in numerous quarters through collective bargaining. Montgomery County, Maryland, workers negotiated pay equity increases in 1989, and in 1992, Montgomery County school employees received $484,000 in pay equity increases. In 1991, the

Best and Worst States in Earnings for Women
Five BestFemale Earnings per $1 MaleFive WorstFemale Earnings per $1 Male
source:Detroit Free Press, "Michigan Among Worst in Equal Pay for Women," September 19, 2002.
Washington, D.C.$0.90West Virginia$0.68

Utility Workers of America negotiated a 15 percent pay equity increase for clerical workers in the Southern California Gas Company. In 1991 and 1992, clerical workers represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) went on strike at Columbia University in New York. After a ten-month strike, an agreement was reached that included pay equity increases for both male and female workers.

Many courts are unwilling to order employers to enact comparable worth pay standards in the absence of legislation. Thus, comparable worth advocates have turned to the legislative process. Minnesota has been an enduring model for achieving comparable worth through legislation. In 1979, the Minnesota Department of Finance completed a study that included an evaluation of state and local government jobs. In 1981, the Council on the Economic Status of Women established the Task Force on Pay Equity to examine salary differences between comparable male and female jobs in state government. The task force report showed consistent inequities between comparable male- and female-dominated jobs, and the Minnesota state legislature passed the State Government Pay Equity Act in 1982 (1982 Minn. Laws c. 64, § 1 et seq.). In 1983, the legislature provided the funds for pay increases, and the Minnesota Department of Employee Relations (DOER) negotiated new contracts for state employees. These contracts included pay equity increases for under-paid female-dominated job classes and cost-of-living increases for all job classes.

In 1984, the Minnesota state legislature enacted the Local Government Pay Equity Act (Minn. Stat. Ann. §§ 471.991 et seq.), which mandated a comparable worth program for cities, counties, school districts, and other units of local government. In 1987 and 1988, the legislature passed laws that assessed fines for local government units that did not report according to provisions of the Local Government Pay Equity Act. In 1996, a DOER report revealed that 92 percent of local government units in Minnesota had achieved pay equity. Those not in compliance with reporting requirements were subject to penalties of up to five percent of state funding, or $100 a day.

Pay equity is a growing movement that builds on progress made in the 1980s. During that time, 20 states adjusted their payrolls to ameliorate sex or race inequities; seven of these states fully implemented broad-based comparable worth laws for their state government employees. States continue to lead in the area of pay equity. For example, New Hampshire has established reporting requirements and enforcement procedures to ensure fair pay; Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming have passed legislation requiring studies in comparable worth; and Maine's department of labor assists in enforcing existing pay equity laws in the state.

In the early twenty-first century, comparable worth legislation was introduced in over half the state legislatures. On the federal level, two newer pieces of legislation were introduced in 2003: the Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act. Representative Holmes Norton and Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the Fair Pay Act in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate respectively. The Fair Pay Act seeks to broaden the Equal Pay Act's protections against wage discrimination to workers in equivalent jobs with similar skills and responsibilities, even if the jobs are not identical. Senator Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and representative from Connecticut Rosa DeLauro (D-New Haven) introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in the Senate and House. The Paycheck Fairness Act is an attempt to provide better remedies to workers who are not being paid equal wages for doing equal work. Passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act would amend the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

further readings

Department of Labor, Bureau of Statistics. 2002. Highlights of Women's Earnings in 2001. (Report 960) Available online at <> (accessed May 7, 2003)

National Committee on Pay Equity. Available online at <> (accessed May 7, 2003).


Affirmative Action; Employment Law.

Comparable Worth

views updated May 09 2018


The term "comparable worth" refers to the claim that workers in predominantly female occupations should be compensated at rates similar to those paid to workers in predominantly male occupations, when the labor involved in both is comparable in value to the employer. The claim assumes (1) that significant sex segregation exists in American employment; (2) that, as a result, women are disadvantaged economically; and (3) that job classifications that are different can nonetheless be compared by analyzing their component skill, effort, responsibility, working conditions, and training requirements.

The first assumption is not controversial. More than half of the jobs that fall under the most commonly used occupational designations are over eighty percent male-or female-dominated. At least part of the second claim is likewise firmly established. On average, women earn only sixty percent of what men do, and the higher the percentage of women in a particular job category, the lower the average wage tends to be.

One of the controversies over comparable worth centers on how much of the male-female wage disparity can be explained by "nondiscriminatory" factors, such as length of time in continuous employment, trade-offs between work and family responsibility, and personal choice. Although these factors may themselves be products of prior sex discrimination, they can nevertheless be distinguished from the employer's own current intentional discrimination, reliance on sex stereotypes, or use of wage-setting devices that do not measure job requirements or performance. Proponents of comparable-worth claims argue that the latter factors produce a significant part of the general wage disparity, so that the disparity is properly challenged as discriminatory under laws guaranteeing equal employment opportunity. Opponents who agree that there is a relationship between employers' undervaluation of certain kinds of work and the fact that such work is predominantly done by women, nonetheless reject comparable-worth claims as a useful strategy for improving the economic condition of women. They prefer strategies that would move large numbers of women into fields in which men are currently overrepresented.

Controversy also surrounds the questions of which jobs are comparable and how to measure comparability. Courts generally accept statistical analysis in claims of employment discrimination, but do not always agree on the validity, appropriateness, or evidentiary weight of particular statistical analyses. Neither do they agree on whether and how comparable-worth claims should fit within the framework of employment discrimination claims created by Title VII of the civil rights act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act of 1964, or the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution. County of Washington v. Gunther (1981), the only Supreme Court opinion to mention comparable worth, expressly declined to address the issue, although it did hold that intentional sex discrimination in wages could be challenged under Title VII, despite differences in male and female job classifications.

Most comparable worth litigation is brought against public employers, who generally employ large numbers of people in a wide variety of job classifications. Although public employers are subject to both Title VII and constitutional prohibitions on discrimination, equal protection claims are generally not raised by plaintiffs seeking comparable-worth decrees. As personnel administrator of massachusetts v. feeney (1979) illustrates, an employment practice does not violate the Constitution unless its discriminatory impact has been intentionally created. Employers are more likely to set wages on the basis of prevailing market rates for certain job classifications or even on unconscious stereotypes about the relative worth of female-dominated occupations than on an intentional desire to undercompensate women simply because they are women.

Even in the statutory arena, much uncertainty remains. For example, it is unclear whether the availability of statutory "disparate impact" claims against other types of alleged employment discrimination extends to sex-based wage discrimination. Some courts have asserted that wage-setting practices are too subjective, too multifaceted, or both, to be effectively tested by the disparate impact model of discrimination. Others have simply stated that an employer's reliance on the market in setting wages is not the kind of practice to which the model should apply. The Supreme Court has spoken only obliquely on these issues.

Given uncertainty whether equal pay for work of comparable worth is required by existing federal law, advocates of comparable worth have not confined their efforts to the courtroom. Pay equity, including comparable worth, has to date been more successfully achieved through collective bargaining, state legislation, and local ordinances than through litigation.

Christine A. Littleton

(see also: Feminist Theory.)


Blumrosen, Ruth G. 1980 Wage Discrimination, Job Segregation and Women Workers. Women's Rights Law Reporter 6:19–57.

Dowd, Nancy E. 1986 The Metamorphosis of Comparable Worth. Suffolk University Law Review 20:833–865.

Feldstein, Hydee R. 1981 Sex-based Wage Discrimination Claims. Columbia Law Review 81:1333–1347.

Note [L ittleton, Christine ] 1981 Toward a Redefinition of Sexual Equality. Harvard Law Review 95:487–508.

Comparable Worth

views updated May 11 2018


COMPARABLE WORTH is a concept introduced in the 1970s to circumvent the effects of job segregation practices. Its premise is that men and women holding different jobs should be similarly compensated if the jobs require comparable skills, training, effort, and responsibility. For example, a company should provide the same compensation to a male truck driver as to a female nurse if worker qualifications, the complexity of the jobs, and the value of the two jobs to the company are comparable.

Fueling the emergence of the comparable worth or pay equity movement were studies revealing that on average, working women earned sixty cents for every dollar earned by men, a pay gap that had not changed substantially for several decades. Pay equity advocates attributed most of this earnings differential to the sex-segregation of the workforce. Women dominated such lower-paying occupations as nursing, retail sales, and clerical services. Sex stereotyping discouraged or restricted women from entering many higher-paying, tradionally male occupations, and the consequent overcrowding in the low-paying positions further depressed wages. In addition, employers undervalued women's work. To rank jobs and assign wage rates, they often used job evaluation systems that contained discriminatory features or relied upon community wage rates, which were in part a product of the discriminatory practices of other employers.

Advocates argued that, by raising the pay for traditionally female occupations, comparable worth would improve the economic situation of many women and their families and would decrease the sex-segregation of the workforce, as men would follow the higher wage rates into traditionally female jobs. Opponents of comparable worth argued that the wage gap reflected factors other than discrimination and that widespread implementation of comparable worth principles would disrupt the economy of the United States.

Employers were able to apply differential wage scales to women because prevailing interpretations of the law through the 1960s and 1970s required equal pay only when men and women performed the same job. In the 1980s federal courts found little merit in suits that would broaden the reach of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by forcing employers to apply comparable worth principles to compensation. The courts held that pay disparities between sexes are a product of supply and demand rather than of intentional employer discrimination.

Comparable worth advocates have had more success in the legislatures than in court. In 1973 the state of Washington became the first state to conduct a study of its own workforce to test for unequal compensation rates between sex-segregated jobs. In 1983 Minnesota became one of the first states to pass legislation to adjust the wages of all of its employees to provide equal pay for comparable work. By 1987 only four states had undertaken no comparable-worth action—data collection, creation of a task force, job evaluation studies, or salary adjustments—at all, while twenty states were implementing pay equity plans based on comparable worth principles.


Aaron, Henry, and Cameran M. Lougy. The Comparable Worth Controversy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1986.

Mezey, Susan Gluck. In Pursuit of Equality: Women, Public Policy, and the Federal Courts. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Nelson, Robert, and William P. Bridges. Legalizing Gender Inequality: Courts, Markets, and Unequal Pay for Women in America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Treiman, Donald, and Heidi Hartmann, eds. Women, Work, and Wages: Equal Pay for Jobs of Equal Value. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1981.

Irwin N.Gertzog

Cynthia R.Poe

See alsoEqual Pay Act .

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Comparable Worth

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