Comparable Worth

Author:Christine A. Littleton

Page 474

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...

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