Comparable worth is shorthand for "equal pay for work of equal value" or "equal pay for work of comparable worth." The doctrine of "comparable worth" is an attempt to remedy the inequities of pay which result from a long history of sex-segregated jobs and different pay scales for "female" and "male" jobs. Market rates, in this view, reflect past discriminatory practices, and cannot be the only basis of deciding current pay equity.
Comparable worth looks at the skills and responsibilities of different jobs and attempts to correlate compensation to those skills and responsibilities.
Comparable worth systems seek to fairly compensate jobs held primarily by women or by men more equitably by comparing the educational and skill requirements, task activities, and responsibility in different jobs, and attempting to compensate each job in relation to such factors rather than by the traditional pay history of the jobs.
Equal Pay vs. Comparable Worth
The Equal Pay Act of 1973 and many court decisions on pay equity revolve around the requirement that the work being compared be "equal work." This approach to equity assumes that there are men and women in the job category and that they should not be paid differently for doing the same work.
What happens when jobs are distributed differently, where there are different jobs, some held traditionally by mostly men and some held traditionally by mostly women? How does "equal pay for equal work" apply?
The effect of the "ghettos" of male and female jobs is that often, the "male" jobs were traditionally compensated more highly in part because they were held by men, and the "female" jobs were compensated less well in part because they were held by women.
The "comparable value" approach then moves to looking at the work itself: What skills are required? How much training and education? What level of responsibility is involved?
Traditionally, the job of a licensed practical nurse has been held mostly by women, and the job of a licensed electrician mostly by men. If the skills and responsibilities and required training levels are found to be relatively equal, then a compensation system involving both jobs would adjust compensation to bring the LPN's pay into line with the electrician's pay.
A common example in a large organization, like state employees, might be outdoor lawn maintenance compared to nursery school aides. The former has traditionally been done more by men and the latter by women. The level of responsibility and education required is higher for the nursery school aides, and lifting small children may be similar to lifting requirements for those maintaining the lawn who lift bags of soil and other materials. Yet traditionally, the nursery school aides were paid less than the lawn maintenance crew, probably because of the historical connections of the jobs with men (once assumed to be breadwinners) and women (once assumed to be earning "pin money"). Is the responsibility for a lawn of more value than the responsibility for the education and welfare of small children?
The Effect of Comparable Worth Adjustments
By using more objective standards applied to otherwise-different jobs, the effect is usually to increase pay to the jobs where women dominate in numbers. Often, the effect is also to equalize pay across racial lines as well, where jobs had been distributed differently by race.
In most actual implementations of comparable worth, the pay of the lower-paid group is adjusted upwards, and the pay of the higher-paid group is allowed to grow more slowly than it would have without the comparable worth system in place. It is not common practice in such implementations for the higher-paid group to have their wages or salaries cut from current levels.
Where Comparable Worth Is Used
Most comparable worth agreements have been the result of labor union negotiations or other agreements and are more likely to be in the public sector than the private sector. The approach lends itself better to large organizations, whether public or private and has little effect on such jobs as domestic workers, where few people work in each workplace.
The union AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) has been particularly active in winning comparable worth agreements.
Opponents of comparable worth generally argue for the difficulty of judging true "worth" of a job, and for allowing the market forces to balance a variety of social values.
- Linda M. Blum. Between Feminism and Labor: The Significance of the Comparable Worth Movement. 1991.
- Sara M. Evans, Barbara N. Nelson. Wage Justice: Comparable Worth and the Paradox of Technocratic Reform. 1989, 1991.
- Joan Acker. Doing Comparable Worth: Gender, Class, and Pay Equity. 1989, 1991.
- Helen Remick. Comparable Worth and Wage Discrimination. 1984, 1985.