Comparable Worth

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Should a truck driver earn more than a telephone operator, or an engineer more than a librarian? Questions like these are largely resolved in the labor market by the forces of supply and demand. Proponents of comparable worth, however, challenge the resulting pattern of wages by arguing that occupations dominated by female workers are paid less than comparable male-dominated jobs because of systematic discrimination against women. Under comparable worth, employers would be required to set wages to reflect differences in the “worth” of jobs, with worth largely determined by job evaluation studies, not by market forces. Advocates expect comparable worth to increase pay in jobs dominated by women and to sharply narrow the overall gender gap in wages.

The campaign for comparable worth policies has generated heated controversy. Advocates of the concept, who also refer to it as “pay equity,” have won important political support. A policy that promises substantial pay increases for many women in the name of equity is bound to have popular appeal. Opponents, however, argue that comparable worth would reduce economic efficiency and would even reduce employment opportunities for women.

The issues are complex. Does the evidence on the male-female wage gap justify new and more radical methods for combating sex discrimination? How would a comparable worth policy actually operate? Would it ultimately benefit women and correct the inequities it is designed to remove?

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