ISSUES SURROUNDING COMPARABLE WORTH: INTRODUCTION
In 1955, among full-time year-round workers, women earned 64 per- cent as much as men. By 1984, this ratio was exactly the same, despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the executive order that mandated affirmative action in firms doing business with the federal government-all implemented during the intervening years. This seemingly dismal history of the wage gap has provoked the womens move- ment to seek a new remedy for eliminating the gap. Over the past few years, the remedy increasingly called for has been comparable worth regu- lation-or pay equity, as supporters prefer to call it.
Comparable worth is a system of wage setting whereby employers would be required to base compensation on an evaluation of the characteristics of the different jobs in their firms, without reference to the going wage for these jobs in other firms. Thus, a firm employing secretaries and boiler- makers would determine the relative wage of these jobs by assessing their comparative skills, mental demands, responsibilities, and working condi- tions. If secretaries work were judged equal to that of boilermakers, then the firm would pay workers in both occupations the same wage-even if boilermakers earned more than secretaries in most other firms. Thus, in its pure form, comparable worth entails a radical departure from market determination of wages.
Proponents of comparable worth base their arguments on the fact that women pursue different occupations than do men, and that the occupa- tions held by women are lower-paying. Advocates often quote Margaret Mead who once wrote, There are villages in which men fish and women weave and in which women fish and men weave, but in either type of vil- lage the work done by the men is valued higher than the work done by the women. Just as in these villages, employers in our complex economy are said to set the wages of female-dominated occupations below the true value of such jobs because of deeply rooted discrimination against women in a society dominated by men. Comparable worth proponents maintain that since the market incorporates these biases, it cannot be relied upon to determine nondiscriminatory wages in male and female jobs.
Several analytical issues are raised by these claims. First, is the wage gap as damning a statistic as it appears? While discrimination may be a factor, there also are other considerations. The 64 percent statistic does not, for example, adjust for male/female differences in hours worked. (If it did, the figure would rise to 72 percent.) Nor does the statistic account for dif- ferences in the length and continuity of years of market work, for career
Assistant Staff Director for Programs and Policy, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Wash- ington, D.C.
Contemporary Policy Issues Vol. IV, April 1986
2 CONTEMPORARY POLICY ISSUES
preparation in school, or for commitment and intensity of work while on the job. A second and related question is why are women in different occu- pations than men? Is it due to womens choices, or is it the result of employ- ers choices?
Third, why do womens jobs pay less? Is it attributable to the same fac- tors that affect womens market skills and earnings generally? Is it due to the crowding of women into a limited number of occupations, whether as a result of free choice or of discrimination? Or, do womens jobs pay less because of wage discrimination applied to occupations rather than to indi- viduals? And how, as an empirical matter, can we distinguish which of these hypotheses is correct?
Fourth, do the economics of the wage gap suggest that comparable worth regulation is needed? For example, if the problem is that employers restrict womens choices and thereby crowd them into continuously depressed jobs, then wouldnt the appropriate policy be to remove such restrictions?
Fifth, how would a comparable worth policy actually set the worth and wages of different jobs? And sixth, what consequences with respect to womens and mens wages and employment and with respect to economic efficiency generally would result from implementing comparable worth?
The four papers in this symposium deal with these issues. In the first paper, John Raisian, Michael Ward, and Finis Welch focus on the problems associated with implementing comparable worth. Among the problems involved are selecting cornpensable job traits, developing scales of value for these traits, and assigning weights in order to aggregate the values. The authors conclude that the difficulties of performing these tasks make com- parable worth infeasible. The paper also presents evidence indicating that the underlying gender differences in career orientation and work experi- ence are beginning to narrow. This suggests that the wage gap will also nar- row in the future.
In the second paper, Walter Oi investigates the labor market effects of implementing a comparable worth policy and notes the analogy to minimum-wage studies. Oi considers the employment, training, and wage consequences for different groups. In so doing, he takes into account firm- size differences and the existence of both covered and uncovered sectors. He concludes that the policy would be harmful to the majority of women.
Trudy Ann Cameron, in the third paper, argues that womens occupa- tional choices are constrained by their roles as wives and mothers. How- ever, she notes that womens choices have been changing as the importance of marriage has been declining, As a result, many women are stranded in occupations that no longer are optimal, with low pay-a situation that can be remedied only in the long term. Cameron recognizes that comparable worth creates market distortions and instead favors-as a short-term mea- sure-extending income transfers based on need.
ONEILL: INTRODUCTION TO COMPARABLE WORTH ISSUES 3
In the final paper, Sharon Bernstein Megdal discusses the difficulty of distinguishing the extent to which discrimination or real productivity dif- ferences are responsible for the wage gap. She then discusses the implica- tions of these findings for comparable worth. She focuses on implementing the policy at the state level, where it has been confined thus far.