In 1985, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that it would no longer aid women who based discrimination cases on the principle of comparable worth. This decision by the EEOC followed in the footsteps of a similar decision made earlier that year by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (Nyren, 1985). These changes marked a significant change in the way the United States perceived the issue of “equal pay for equal work.”
The principle of comparable worth tries to define the way wages should be determined. It states that a system can be devised to compare jobs based on the content of their work, even if the jobs are very different. The effect of the market on employee pay is not disregarded, but advocates of this principle believe that the final determining factor in regards to compensation should be job content. To this end, job evaluations are performed and a point system is used to rank each job. Based on this point system, jobs with similar scores should be paid equivalently (Boatright, 2007).
Naturally, this principle is not without controversy. One version of the principle believes that market value should be completely ignored when making compensation decisions. The concern is that the market may have a tendency to undervalue the work performed. The wages of teachers is an example of this. Although this job is generally perceived as noble or morally responsible, teachers receive far less compensation considering the skill and education required. This version of the principle attempts to free wage discussions from the morally questionable foundation of the market system (Boatright, 2007).
The second version of the principle of comparable worth believes that the free market does a fine job of setting wages. Unfortunately, discrimination interrupts the operation of the market on wages. Therefore, some workers are not able to earn what they would be able to earn if there was no discrimination. This version of the principle is best viewed as a tool to find and remove discrimination in the market (Boatright, 2007).
The second version of this principle is the least controversial. The concept of evaluating jobs based on their content is a useful tool, but in the end, employees should be paid for their worth. Robert Buchele and Mark Aldrich (1985) applied a complicated job evaluation algorithm to determine the content of various jobs dominated by one gender or the other. Not surprisingly their research discovered that women in 1978 earned about 60 percent of what men earned that year (Buchele & Aldrich, 1985). This data almost exactly matches the information gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2007) in 2006.
One major failing of the first version of comparable worth is the idea that jobs of equivalent content should earn equivalent pay. Boatright (2007) uses the example of a painter and a secretary having comparable scores in a job evaluation. On general principle, these jobs might deserve to earn similar pay. But the job evaluations fail to take into consideration the business these employees work for. For example, if the company in question is in the business of painting houses, the painters deserve greater pay since they are the “product.” Similarly, a secretary working for a company that provides secretarial services for Fortune 500 companies deserves higher compensation than the person that keeps the walls painted.
The real value in the principle of comparable worth is rooting out discrimination. Using evidence like the work presented by Buchele and Aldrich (1985), it is obvious that jobs held predominantly by women earn considerably less than those held by men. The chance that this is merely coincidence is preposterous. As Boatright (2007) concludes, “insofar as the wage gap is due to discrimination, it ought to be eliminated” (p. 225).
Boatright, J. (2007). Ethics and the conduct of business, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Buchele, R., & Aldrich, M. (1985, Spring85). How much different would comparable worth make?. Industrial Relations, 24(2). Retrieved June 12, 2008, from Business Source Elite database.
Nyren, K. (1985, September 15). Comparable worth laid low by equal opp. agencies. Library Journal, 110(15), 28. Retrieved June 12, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2007, September). Highlights of women’s earnings in 2006. Retrieved June 12, 2008, from http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswom2006.pdf.