Comparable Worth

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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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.

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During World War II many women took jobs in what had traditionally been male fields of work. Ten years after the war ended, the Census Bureau released figures showing that women earned only 64 percent of what men earned.


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...

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