UNDERLYING the nationwide efforts to establish the principle of equal pay for work of comparable value are continuing disparities between the earnings of men and women.

In 1984, former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall and Beth Paulin of the University of Texas published an article putting the comparable worth controversy in the perspective of this male-female "wage gap." Here is an excerpt:

At the beginning of the 1980s, despite some occupational upgrading, women had about the same earnings relative to men that they had at the beginning of the 1970s. Women who worked full time earned about 60 percent as much as men. Although women almost achieved earnings parity in some newer occupations like computer science, they ordinarily were concentrated in lower- paying jobs in each occupation.

In 1978, white women earned 55.6 cents for evey dollar earned by white men, while black women and Hispanic women fared even worse: 52.3 cents and 48.2 cents for every dollar earned by white men, respectively.

The real wage gap for young white men and women actually appears to be widening when other things are held constant. A 1984 study by Gordon W. Green Jr., a senior official of the Census Bureau, found a growing real wage gap for young (average age 21 or 22) white men and white women full-time workers who entered the job market for the first time in 1980. The average wages for white women, as a proportion of the average for white men, were 86 percent in 1970 and 83 percent in 1980 . . . .

Some might argue that these earnings differentials can be partially explained by the quality of education. However, a study by Susan Bailey and Barbara Burrell (1980) examined the careers of 1972 graduates of Harvard's schools of law, dentistry, design, divinity, education, public health and arts and sciences seven years after students were awarded advanced degrees, and found that women graduates had consistently lower salaries regardless of marital or family status. For instance, the average salaries of graduates of the Harvard School of Public Health were $37,800 a year for men and $21,300 for women . . . .

Even though the absolute number of women breaking into non-traditional, male-dominated occupations is on the rise, the occupational distribution of men and women workers has changed very little since 1900. And according to (Peter J. Meyer and Patricia L. Maes, authors of a 1983 study), the patterns of occupational segregation are likely to persist as the new generation of women workers follows closely in the occupational mold, despite the convergence of education and labor force participation patterns of men and women.

That the male-female earnings gap and occupational segregation have proven to be stable labor market phenomena in the face of dynamic economic change leads one to question the equity and efficiency of the labor market's allocative and remunerative forces. Are women underpaid for their work, or do they merely hold those jobs that are worth relatively less? This is the crux of the comparable worth controversy.