The District government recently began debating the merits of "comparable worth" in paying city workers, and already there is a dispute over whether the City Council or the administration should research city salaries for possible inequities.

Proponents of the comparable worth concept contend that jobs traditionally held by women are systematically underpaid because of sex discrmination. They say that wages for such jobs ought to be increased to equal those of jobs held by men that require comparable skill and responsibility.

City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) has introduced a bill authorizing the city to hire a consultant to conduct a study of wage-setting practices. The consultant would identify ways to end discriminatory practices and would recommend additional remedial legislation.

Also, a task force would be established under the legislation to determine whether there are female-dominated job categories for which salaries should be increased.

At a recent hearing on the bill, administration officials objected to the proposed legislation, arguing that the supporters presumed there was a problem without presenting any evidence. The officials said that the executive branch should play a major role in any action taken. In fact, Mayor Marion Barry's representatives indicated that Barry wants to do much of what is proposed in the council's legislation.

According to the National Organization for Women, which has been monitoring the debate over comparable worth around the nation, only five states have not taken some action on the issue. At least 16 states have conducted job evaluation studies on wage discrepancies, and 15 have appointed task forces or commissions to examine the issue, according to a NOW spokesman. A number of the states that have taken action did not ratify the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.

Why then hasn't the District -- a city with a strong liberal tradition and headed by a mayor and City Council members who were civil rights activists -- taken action?

J. Wesley Watkins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union for the Washington area, said District officials are approaching the issue like "reluctant warriors" and that the delay may be attributable to a lack of outside pressure. Watkins said that city officials might have just assumed that there were no discrepancies in the District's pay system, which evolved from the federal civil service.

But Pauline Schneider, the mayor's director for intergovernmental relations, said that while some Barry administration officials have been asked to review the issue, "We just haven't focused on it."

Schneider said that the executive branch wants to approach the comparable worth issue "very carefully" and that it might be a mistake to restrict a review of discrimination in pay solely to the issue of sex.

Until now, the comparable worth issue has gotten the most attention during contract negotiations between the city and public employe unions. Donald H. Weinberg, director of the D.C. Office of Labor Relations and Collective Bargaining, contends that if sexual discrimination exists, female employes have legal recourse through existing equal pay and civil rights legislation.

In a memorandum to Schneider, Weinberg said the bill under consideration by the City Council "seems to be an attempt from the unions to achieve through political process what they couldn't achieve from the collective bargaining process."

Weinberg wrote that the "presumption" that any job classification that is dominated by women is the result of discrimination "is simply erroneous."

But union officials argue that women employed by the District are paid less than men doing similar jobs and that the District government has no choice but to correct discrepancies.

The AFL-CIO's Metropolitan Washington Council conducted an analysis of salaries and concluded that male employes of the District are paid an average of $6,013 to $10,424 more per year than their female counterparts.