Until the late 1970s, an acceptable workplace practice was to pay men more than women, even if they did the same or essentially the same work. The 1963 federal Equal Pay Act mandated equal pay for equal work. Although this law helped those women who did the same or essentially similar work, it had limited impact, because rarely do men and women do the same work. Indeed, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that not only do women do different work than men, but the work they do is paid less, and the more an occupation is dominated by women, the less it pays. Occupational segregation is pervasive and is a major factor accounting for the gender-based wage gap.
Comparable worth, also known as pay equity, focuses on correcting the gender-based wage gap that is a by-product of occupational segregation. It requires that dissimilar jobs of equivalent work for the employer be paid the same wages. Comparable worth also encompasses a technique for determining the complexity of dissimilar jobs and the value of these jobs to the major mission of a work organization. Comparable worth addresses wage discrimination, that is, the systematic undervaluation of women’s work simply on the basis that primarily women do it. Because some men also work in historically female jobs, such as nursing, they too suffer from gender-based wage discrimination because they choose to work in female-dominated jobs.
Systematic undervaluation or wage discrimination means that the wages paid to those who perform female-dominated work (FDW) are lower than they would be if the typical incumbent of that job were a white male. Thus, wage discrimination involves adjusting the wages paid to those performing female-dominated jobs by removing the negative effect of “femaleness” on the wage rate independent of the complexity of tasks and responsibilities of that job. If implemented, comparable worth would require employers to base their wages solely on the skills, effort, responsibilities, and working conditions of the job.
How, then, is it possible to measure the content of the job and determine its complexity relative to other jobs? The use of job evaluation to determine wages goes back more than 100 years, but those systems in use today have their roots in systems first developed in the 1940s and 1950s. Approximately two thirds of all employers in the United States use some form of job evaluation to establish their wage structure—that is, ranking jobs from lower to higher in job complexity and paying people who work in these jobs less or more money.
Although job evaluation systems rest on the argument that they are scientific and objective in their assessment of job content, they actually embed assumptions about work that contain significant gender bias. Specifically, these systems, developed more than a half-century ago, evolved at a time when approximately 25 percent of all adult women worked, with their wages treated as secondary incomes or “pin money.” To develop these systems, evaluators would take existing wage rates, examine the job content of high-wage jobs, and treat the characteristics of those jobs as complex. As a result, either they did not recognize the job content found in historically low-paid women’s work as complex, or they did not even define the job content. In these traditional job evaluation systems, there was no explanation or justification provided for either the description of certain job characteristics or the definition of certain characteristics as more complex. Conceptually, the breadwinner-home-maker ideologies of the mid-20th century became institutionalized into the wage structure through conventional job evaluation systems.
Technically, job evaluation orders jobs as more or less complex and, therefore, as more or less valuable to the employer for the purpose of paying jobs according to some systematic procedure. It follows three steps: describing jobs with respect to the characteristics to be evaluated; evaluating jobs as more or less complex relative to the established hierarchy of complexity; and assigning wages based on how many job evaluation points a job receives and what other firms pay for such jobs. The more job evaluation points there are, the higher the wage will be.
Job evaluation is the institutional mechanism that perpetuates wage discrimination, especially in medium-sized and large workplaces. The gender bias of these systems is pervasive. Those pay equity advocates who attempt to measure wage discrimination seek to cleanse traditional job evaluation systems of gender bias. To achieve this objective requires recognition of the social construction of systems of job evaluation and the need for social reconstruction to achieve gender neutrality.
One aspect of gender bias in job evaluation is ignoring or taking for granted the prerequisites, tasks, and work content of jobs historically performed by women. For example, working with mentally ill or dying patients and their families or reporting to multiple supervisors is not treated either as stressful job content or as involving any effort. By contrast, working with noisy machinery is treated as stressful, and solving budgetary problems is treated as involving significant effort. The work of a secretary or office coordinator in running an office remains invisible, especially if she performs her job competently.
Another aspect of gender bias is the assumption that the content of historically female work is innate to all females and does not require skills, effort, or responsibilities. For example, the emotional labor of nurses, nursing assistants, day care workers, and even flight attendants is treated as stereotypically female; thus, it is not necessary to remunerate those who perform these types of jobs. By contrast, those who perform the occupation of math professor—a historically male job—do not receive lower pay because men are supposedly innately good at math.
Gender bias also manifests itself in descriptions of work performed in female-dominated jobs that assume its lesser complexity compared with the content of male-dominated jobs. For example, both women’s and men’s jobs require perceptual skills and effort. Male-dominated jobs are more likely to require spatial perceptual skills, and female-dominated jobs are more likely to require visual skills. In traditional job evaluation systems, spatial skills are treated as more complex than visual skills without any explanation or justification.
Comparable worth advocates do not question the established hierarchy of complexity as it relates to male work. Rather, they seek to adjust the way women’s work is described and evaluated, so that FDW is paid fairly in relation to the actual complexity and value of the work performed. Technical comparable worth advocates first attempted to modify traditional job evaluation systems; now they have begun to design new gender-neutral job evaluation systems to measure job content.
These gender-neutral systems, one of which was developed by Ronnie J. Steinberg, measure both male-dominated work and FDW more accurately, making the invisible components of FDW visible and thus rewarded for the actual work performed in two important ways. First, gender-neutral job evaluation builds new dimensions of job complexity or job factors to capture and positively value the skills, effort, responsibilities, and undesirable working conditions of FDW. An example is the construction of a new evaluation factor for emotional effort, which measures the intensity of effort required to deal directly with clients or their families or coworkers in assisting, instructing, caring for, or comforting them. Within emotional effort, hierarchies of complexity are built and applied consistently to both FDW and male-dominated work. Thus, the work of police officers, as well as of client-oriented direct service workers, is recognized and compensated for this important dimension of their work.
Second, gender-neutral job evaluation includes and revalues unacknowledged or undervalued job content by broadening definitions of job dimensions or factors that already exist in traditional job evaluation. For example, the measurement of human relations skills would not only measure supervision of subordinates but also include and value highly the skill and effort required to deal effectively with, to care for, or to influence others.
However, gender-neutral systems of job evaluation are almost never used in pay equity initiatives undertaken in the United States, and whereas most states have taken some action to assess wage discrimination in public sector employment, only Minnesota has made wage discrimination illegal for all public sector employers. Thus, gender-neutral job evaluation is a technical solution in search of a radically different political climate as well as a political base with sufficient power to implement it.
Why have comparable pay initiatives not used gender-neutral job evaluation and instead used gender-biased traditional job evaluation to measure and correct for gender bias? First, when trendsetter states such as Minnesota and Washington conducted their job evaluation studies, no design for gender-neutral job evaluation yet existed. The studies did find some unexplained wage differences—enough to result in modest wage increases. Politically, women earned more wages and all but a few believed that the problem of wage discrimination had been solved. These first studies set the limits for future studies.
By the time that the second phase of initiatives emerged—partly as a result of these early successes— advocates were developing new job evaluation systems. But, given the previous studies, there was no commitment to do more than states had already done. So the studies were conducted, the results fell far short of removing gender bias from compensation practices, and gender-neutral job evaluation remained on the shelf.
In addition, states conducting studies developed advisory committees or task forces as well as several political strategies to give the appearance of advocate involvement while undercutting advocate power to affect study design or outcomes. In other words, advocates were contained, making it possible to limit the impact of the study on wage adjustments. For example, study directors would pretend that political decisions were technical decisions, thereby blocking advisory committee members from deliberating on key aspects of the study design, or the study directors would withhold information from the task force. Also, comparable worth advocates were in the minority of the advisory committee and, as a result, were unable to garner sufficient votes when a disagreement arose. Yet, their presence on the committee contributed to the legitimacy of the study. Directors often divided proponents from each other, especially representatives from labor organizations and women’s groups. Finally, in some states, advocates were completely excluded from a task force, on the argument that they were not directly involved in the wage-setting process.
Truly cleansing compensation systems of their gender bias could put an extra $2,000 to $7,000 per year in the paychecks of those performing FDW. Even flawed studies with gender-biased evaluation systems have resulted in approximately $527 million dispersed in 20 states, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. For many employed in FDW, these adjustments represent the difference between poverty and economic autonomy. Along with raising the minimum wage and the success of the movement for a living wage, comparable worth is a very effective strategy for moving working women out of poverty.
Comparable worth is a matter of economic equity. It affects the political and social power of women. Above all, it is a matter of simple justice.
- England, Paula. 1992. Comparable Worth: Theories and Evidence. Piscataway, NJ: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Evans, Sara M. and Barbara N. Nelson. 1991. Wage Justice: Comparable Worth and the Paradox of Technocratic Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Steinberg, Ronnie J. 1990. “Social Construction of Skill: Gender, Power, and Comparable Worth.” Worth and Occupations 17(4):449-82.
- Treiman, Donald and Heidi Hartmann. 1981. Women, Work, and Wages: Equal Pay for Jobs of Equal Value. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
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