Quiz: Who wrote the following? "Comparable worth is an extension of women's demand for equal pay for equal work, an idea that is both reasonable and fair as a way of correcting the undeniable, historic wage discrimination against women."

Answer: the editors of Business Week magazine.

That's right. The quotation comes not from the annual report of the Radical Feminist League to Disrupt the American Economy, but from an editorial in a recent issue of a distinguished business journal. They recognize that "comparable worth" -- the misnomer that generally refers to the idea that employers should not pay low wages for certain jobs just because they are typically held by women -- is an idea that should not be dismissed by ridicule or msrepresentation.

Economists predict that, as skills of working women increase, the pay gap between men and women will narrow to "only" 25 percent by the end of the century. Part of the larger discrepancy is accounted for by differences in training, work experience, responsibility and, perhaps, such intangibles as "drive" and the distractions of family responsibilities. But there is no serious dispute that many employers pay less for jobs in which women are concentrated than those in which men predominate.

Women for centuries were crowded into a few occupations. It would have been remarkable if employers had not taken advantage of that fact by paying them less than their skills and responsibilities would have commanded in an open marketplace. Vestiges of this discrimination still exist. How else to explain the fact that New York City pays its police dispatchers (mostly black women) several thousand dollars less than it pas its predominately white male fire dispatchers -- to cite one current but far from isolated example?

Using similar examples, women have been pressing employers in wage negotiations (such as those recently concluded at Yale University) and in court suits alleging illegal discrimination (such as the successful suit brought against the State of Washington). The comparable pay practices being sought would not, as administration spokesmen and other pooh-poohers of the idea claim, require that ballet dancers be paid as much as football players, or nurses as much as lab technicians. Nor would the changes being asked of individual employers require the creation of another ghastly federal bureaucracy charged with assigning worth and wages to every worker.

In fact, as a recent report sponsored by 23 House Republicans pointed out, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the state of Washington case, already prohibits employers from adopting pay-setting schemes that discriminate between men and women in similar though not identical jobs. These Republican legislators did not find that the drive for comparable pay presaged the decline and fall of the free-enterprise system. Instead, they called on employers to eliminate bias from their pay practices and on federal agencies to speed up investigation of discriminatory practices.

Ending sex discrimination in wage- setting would not prohibit employers from setting pay scales that were different from those of other employers or from responding to skill shortages in male-dominated jobs. But fair pay would require that individual employers review their formal or informal job classification practices and ask themselves, for example, whether the differences in what they pay secretaries (who are in short supply) and truckdrivers (who are currently in great surplus) are really the result of impartial market forces.

In fact, most wages arenot determined by the free interplay of supply and demand in a fluid market. Convention, monopoly power, unionization and employer preference have had far more to do with the wages paid in many occupations. The relatively high

pay for surgeons compared

with other doctors, for example, has been traced to the

surgeons' dominance in fee

setting arrangements when

Blue Shield insurance was invented in the 1930s. The

relatively low pay for nurses

and secretaries has been

charged to collusive practices

among employers in some


Like earlier legally enforced changes in the labor market -- minimum wage, child-labor, health and safety, fair labor standards and equal-pay laws -- reviewing comparable pay would be inconvenient and, in some cases, costly to employers. But forward-looking private and public employers -- such as the editors of Business Week and the 23 House Republicans -- are recognizing that inexplicable diffeences in pay for jobs requiring comparable skills are not only hard to justify but very likely to result in costly litigation.

By moving voluntarily to straighten out its pay practices, the state of Minnesota, for example, avoided both prolonged litigation and a costly settlement. By willfully ignoring repeated findings by independent job reviewers, the state of Washington ended up owing -- deservedly -- a costly back- pay award. Moreover, contrary to predictions of opponents, Minnesota's new pay practices seem to have encouraged women to move into traditionally male jobs -- a trend that will ultimately help in narrowing the gap between male and female earnings.

The importance of pay equity is easy to exaggerate on both sides. While egregious pay discrimination because of gender surely exists, the evidence is that it does not account for a substantial portion of the total wage bill. That means that eliminating it neither would be very costly to the average employer nor would do much for the average female worker. But comparable worth -- or pay equity or sex discrimination or whatever you want to call it -- is important as part of the continuing drive to make the job market a fairer and more open place.