Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Comparable Worth: Is It a Moot Issue?

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Comparable Worth: Is It a Moot Issue?

Article excerpt

Among the internal and external environmental influences on human resource management, no other issue has more social, political, and economic implications than comparable worth. Identified as "the working women's issue of the 1980s" (Hutner, 1986; Willborn, 1986), comparable worth grew out of the recognition that increasing numbers of women are entering the workforce, that sex segregation exists in the labor force, and that working women are generally paid less than working men. Through a series of articles the authors present the history, current status, and emerging issues pertaining to this issue.


Comparable worth proponents argue that (1) the earnings ratio disparity cannot be explained by anything other than discrimination; (2) women's earnings have been unaffected by fair pay and employment legislation because women remain in segregated jobs; and (3) the only solution that would have a significant impact on women's earnings is to raise the pay that women receive in women's jobs.

This is the first of a series of three articles to appear in this and future issues of Public Personnel Management. The purpose of this series of articles is (1) to explore the topic of comparable worth from a historical perspective and to present current statistics and projected trends regarding women in the labor force, (2) to discuss legislation and litigation arising from comparable worth issues, and (3) to identify three major areas of disagreement and to present arguments from comparable worth advocates and opponents in each area. In this article, the authors shall present the first of the series, the historical perspectives, with the remaining two to follow in subsequent issues.

Although the comparable worth issue is a global one, the scope of these discussions is limited to the facts and arguments pertaining to the U.S. labor force. Discussions concerning organized labor and collective bargaining are limited in scope to the historical and legal aspects of comparable worth.

Organization of This Study

Before exploring comparable worth from a past, present and future perspective, this study begins by clarifying what comparable worth is and is not. Once defined, comparable worth issues are raised and the current debate is explained. Beginning with a discussion of the status of working women prior to World War I, the historical underpinnings of comparable worth are reviewed. Historical facts concerning women in the U.S. labor force from the period between World War I and World War II are presented. Current statistics and trends follow, focusing on working women after World War II.

Defining Comparable Worth(1)

There has been some confusion over the definition of "comparable worth." This term has been used interchangeably with the term "pay equity." There are four distinctive categories under which compensation can fall (Lorber et. al., 1985).

"Equal pay for equal work" is the least debated category. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 explicitly identifies four basic factors on which to compare jobs to determine equality. They are skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions. Jobs are determined to be substantially equal if each job does not significantly differ with respect to each factor. Employers must pay the same salary for jobs that are equal regardless of gender domination.

It is possible that two jobs could be similar with respect to the four factors, but not substantially equal. This is an "equal pay for similar work" situation which, comparable worth advocates argue, should not justify differences in wages.

Another category is "pay parity." This requires that the average salary for women must be equal to the average salary for men, aggregated on a national basis. This is perhaps the most extreme view.

The most hotly debated compensation category is "equal pay for equal worth." This means that jobs that are dissimilar, but equal in terms of value or worth to the employer, should be paid the same. …

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