Various commentators on comparable worth recently have sidestepped several important issues underlying the "pay equity" debate.
Although some of us have been criticized for having too much faith in the market, it should be remembered that the market is not necessarily the problem and, even if it were, wage and price controls (disguised as "pay equity") are certainly not the answer. With comparable worth, someone (a court or government agency) rather than the marketplace, will be the final arbiter of whether an employer pays what a job is "worth." While having so little faith in the market, many women's groups have, in my judgment, far too little faith in women's ability to choose.
Despite tremendous progress by women in recent years, they still obtain fewer advanced degrees than men and tend to acquire them in fields with less earnings potential; they work an average of 35.7 hours a week, compared with 44 for men; they are 11 times more likely to leave the work force before retirement than men; and they are more willing to trade off higher pay for other perceived benefits, such as greater flexibility for entry and exit from the work force or sedentary indoor work. The wage gap is virtually eliminated when wages of males and females with equivalent education, seniority, hours on the job and other factors unrelated to discrimination are compared.
Since comparable worth is ostensibly designed to solve the problems of wage discrimination and occupational segregation, it is difficult to imagine how artificially inflating the wages of traditionally female jobs would provide an incentive for women to move into nontraditional fields. As for wage discrimination, existing law requires equal pay for equal work and prohibits gender discrimination in the work place.
Proponents of comparable worth are saying that, after having made all jobs equally available to persons of both sexes and after setting wages without regard to sex, the employer must be penalized based on a woman's voluntary preference for a traditionally female job. Claiming to be undervalued (and are there any of us -- female or male -- who would not make the same claim?), there is no other evidence of discrimination than a wage gap. Yet, comparable worth proponents would impose legal liability based on the mere existence of such a gap and give a subjective job evaluation the force of law.
Just because the results for any one group are not statistically equal should not lead us to assume that our present laws have failed. Comparable worth has the potential, just as quotas do, to generate tension between the need to eliminate discrimination for groups in the aggregate and the need to protect the rights of individuals. When a person's group status entitles him to "x, y or z," the inevitable result is to a)reduce the focus on individual merit and ability, while b)increasing the supervisory role of the government or the courts in assessing the distribution of societal resources.
Comparable worth is no shortcut to equality, and those women's groups advocating such a notion do not speak for all of us.