The Fallacy of Comparable Worth

Bad ideas have a way of sticking around. One that won't go away is known as "comparable worth." A federal judge in Denver who dismissed a suit based on it was right when he panned it as "pregnant with the possibility of disrupting the entire economic system of the United States."

Comparable worth is the notion that different jobs can be rated equal and paid equally. Note the word "different." This scheme has nothing whatever to do with the worthy goal of "equal pay for equal work."

Its advocates insist that women are victims of discrimination because many female--oriented jobs pay lower wages than allegedly "comparable" male-dominated jobs. Compensation in those occupations traditionally dominated by women (nursing, secretarial, elementary teaching, for instance) is low supposedly because employers just don't want to pay women what they are really worth.

To "correct" this situation via comparable worth, new public agencies or commissions would have to be created. Bureaucrats would compare the worth to employers of, say, clerical workers to the worth of truck drivers. If the two jobs were judged to be "comparable" it would then become illegal for an employer to pay his clerical workers more or less than his truck drivers. Here's what is wrong with the whole idea:

1. It would wreck supply and demand in the labor market. It is ludicrous to think that millions of employers have conspired to hold pay for women down. Employers pay what they must to attract and keep qualified workers. No study, interestingly enough, has shown that women who work for male employers earn less as a group than other women doing the same work for female employers.

A few years ago, comparable worth advocates in the state of Washington arbitrarily rated a clerical supervisor higher than a chemist, at the same time the marketplace was rewarding chemists with 41% higher pay. They also ranked truck drivers near the bottom of occupations compared, lower than telephone operators or retail clerks. The market, was paying truck drivers 30% more than telephone operators and considerably more than that over retail clerks.

The illusion here is that the relative worth of different skills, working conditions and responsibilities can be mystically divined and distilled into a cookbook recipe by people who aren't even in the kitchen.

2. It would increase unemployment among women. By forcibly raising wages in the job categories traditionally held by women, it would inevitably reduce the demand for female workers.

A complaint filed in 1982 in Illinois alleged that Chicago city female workers were discriminated against because "women are concentrated in clerical jobs, averaging $10,000 per year while men hold blue collar, police and firefighting jobs earning $20,000 per year." Comparable worth proponents called for equal pay as a "remedy."

If a private employer were to be subjected to such comparable worth requirements, does anyone out there really believe he would employ just as many secretaries at $20,000 as he did at $10,000?

3. It would reduce the incentive for women to seek access to traditionally non-female jobs. In the decade of the '70s, the number of female economists rose from 12% to 25% of the total; female accountants from 22% to 38%; and female bartenders from 28% to 48%. In a number of other occupations, high-paying and formerly thought of as exclusively male, women have made remarkable strides. That kind of progress would be stifled if a national comparable worth policy were ever imposed. Many of those women fortunate enough to retain their jobs at a forced higher wage would probably stay in those jobs.

As if these problems were not enough, comparable worth would open a Pandora's box of endless litigation. Every bureaucrat's judgement of which job was equal to what other job would be challenged by workers and employers alike.

When the late Clarence Pendleton of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission labeled comparable worth as "looney tunes," he knew what has was talking about. Let's hope it never gets beyond the hopper in Congress.