Is a telephone operator worth more than a truck driver, a nurse worth more than a librarian, or an actuary worth more than a writer? Advocates of a comparable-worth policy for setting pay would answer these questions by means of evaluations of the job characteristics, conducted by employers without recourse to the wages paid by other firms (i.e., the market) for the same or similar work.
Thus a firm employing actuaries and writers would determine the wage of each job category by assessing the comparative skill, mental demands, accountability, and working conditions of each job. If the evaluation finds that the writer job is equal to the actuary job, then that firm would assign them the same wage, even if in most other firms writers earn less than actuaries.
This procedure, of course, differs radically from the prevailing method for determining pay, which is essentially based on market forces of supply and demand. Moreover, the wage structure resulting from comparable-worth evaluations would likely differ from the pattern of wages resulting from the market solution.
The questions are, would the results of comparable worth be more fair than the market, and could such a system of wage setting ever be practical to implement and efficient in its effects?
Would women gain?
The current movement for comparable worth has largely come from women's groups who believe that pay in predominantly female occupations would rise under the new system. This belief was no doubt encouraged by the results of the most well known evaluation of the worth of a wide array of jobs, conducted for the State of Washington in the early 1970s. This evaluation maintained that female jobs paid about 20 percent less than predominantly male jobs judged to have the same worth. worth in this case was based on the judgments of a group of 13 politically appointed individuals, including representatives of women's associations.
Comparable-worth claims, however, need not be confined to women's groups and would likely spread to other groups if comparable-worth systems were ever actually imposed on a significant scale. Groups such as minority males, for example, could make a convincing case that heavy manual labor that brings with it the risk of health impairment is undervalued by studies such as the one conducted for Washington State, or the jobs requiring considerable on-the-job training are undervalued compared with those requiring paper educational credentials.
Once political judgments become a means for setting pay, the system becomes inherently divisive. There is no objective, scientific standard of fair pay. Everyone's wages cannot go up, and those who lose out will not sit idly by.
Market solutions, by contrast, operate silently and impersonally. Market-based wages are not intended to measure intrinsic worth, but instead reflect a balancing of demand factors (such as consumer demand for the firm's products, the cost of capital, and available technology) and supply factors (such as the cost of acquiring training and schooling, the hours and amenities of the job, and the tastes and talents of workers).
As conditions change, the pattern of wages for different jobs and workers will likely change. Wages provide workers with the incentive to acquire new skills, to assume unpleasant tasks, or to migrate to different regions. …