Comparable worth is an extremely complicated social, political, and economic issue dealing with gender-related wage scales in the workplace. Although both proponents and opponents of comparable worth claim that from a legal or legislative standpoint the issue of comparable worth is gender neutral, the social aspects of the issue are, however, driven by gender specificity in that they focus entirely on women's wages in relation to men's. Fueling comparable worth claims is the assumption that continuation of the historical disparity between men's wages and women's wages is the result of an illegal and discriminatory view of the value of those jobs traditionally done by females. According to New York sociologist Lynda Ames, "This has led to the devaluation of women's work—which is the root of the problem."

Comparable worth as a social issue is fairly straightforward. The legal side of comparable worth, however, is much less clear. As a legal concept, comparable worth is evolving through a plethora of court cases, appeals, reversals, affirmations, and administrative rulings dealing with related wage disparity issues, but not comparable worth per se. Further complicating the question are the ancillary issues surrounding comparable worth, such as "equal pay for equal work," "equal pay for similar work," and "pay parity," which although sounding similar are quite different from comparable worth. The issue is even further complicated by an oftentimes bewildering barrage of statistical claims, counterclaims, and counter-counterclaims put out by advocates and opponents alike.

Under the concept of "equal pay for equal work," if jobs do not significantly differ from one another in terms of skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions, they are seen as being equal. Using such criteria, workers having equal jobs are required by the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to be compensated equally in terms of wages, salaries, benefits, etc. Exceptions to equal pay may, however, be based on such things as seniority, merit pay, and productivity. These exceptions, however, must be gender neutral. There is virtually no social, political, economic, or legal dissension over equal pay for equal work. Equal pay for similar work means that although two jobs are similar in regards to the above four factors, they are not substantially equal. Proponents of comparable worth argue that when jobs are similar but not substantially equal, wages should nonetheless be equal. Advocates of pay parity maintain that the national aggregate of the wages of men and women should be equal, regardless. This is considered to be an extreme position and has few adherents. Analogous to comparable worth is "equal pay for equal worth." This means that wage scales should be based on job evaluations and formulas that quantify or rate the "worth" of each job to the employer. So for instance in a given company, a secretary (traditionally a job performed by women) and an electrician (a trade traditionally performed by men) would both merit equal pay if according to a rating formula the jobs were of equal worth to the employer. Jobs with equal ratings according to a worth evaluation formula should and must be paid equal wages. This is the crux of the comparable worth controversy.

Both sides of the issue concur that there is a gender-based wage disparity in the United States and in fact most other Western industrialized nations. Proponents of comparable worth, however, claim that this wage disparity is based on ages-old sex discrimination, and while the wage gap is generally narrowing, it is not narrowing fast enough. Proponents also believe that in the absence of voluntary employer compliance, relief can be found only via the federal court system. Opponents of comparable worth, while readily acknowledging this wage disparity, argue that it is caused not by discrimination but rather by a combination of personal career-track decisions made by women, and natural and sustainable economic forces that should not be sacrificed on the altar of social engineering.


Women have of course always worked, but until the Industrial Revolution they weren't employed—at least not in any significant numbers. With the maturing of the Industrial Revolution, 1850 to 1900, women first began working for manufacturers, especially textile manufacturers, in significant numbers. Their wages, however, were always less than those of men. In 1820 a woman working in New England in manufacturing made about 33 percent of what her male counterpart made. This gap narrowed to 63 percent by 1880 but then began widening. In all of the United States the differential between the wages of men and women spread from 54 percent in 1890 to 44 percent in 1951.

Laissez-faire economics of the early 1900s issued in many studies and concerns about the workplace, including the welfare of women workers. Reform efforts were aimed at protecting women in the workplace rather than mitigating wage disparities. Legislation was passed limiting women's work hours—including the prohibition of night work—while other laws also kept women from jobs deemed unsafe. Labor unions in the middle to late 1800s were also concerned with the welfare of women workers. Unions believed that women in the workplace, coupled with their relatively low wages, would lead to the dissolution of families while increasing poverty. As such the labor movement strongly supported legislation protecting women workers. Many social historians argue, however, that this protectionist legislation was really aimed at making women as a group unattractive to potential employers thus tightening the labor market and ensuring higher paying jobs for men.

In the 20th century the fortunes of women in the workplace fluctuated with the demand for labor. During World War I women were in demand but by the 1930s the Great Depression had created a labor surplus and women were seen as taking jobs away from men who were viewed as "family providers." The National Recovery Administration set equal pay standards but the Works Progress Administration had a policy of hiring only males who were primary family wage earners. The tight labor market during World War II returned many women to the workplace and many stayed. Equal pay legislation was proposed as early as 1946 but not passed until the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which clarified equal pay for equal work but in an unintentional way issued in decades of legal confusion over disparate gender-based wage schedules.


The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was amended in 1963 to include the Equal Pay Act, which, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "prohibits wage discrimination on the basis of gender in jobs that are equal in skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions." In 1977 the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor interpreted a Supreme Court decision on the Equal Pay Act to mean that "jobs of men and women need only be 'substantially equal"—not identical for purpose of comparison under the law." The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its Title VII prohibited discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. The provision covering "sex" was added only in the final days of legislative debate, as the original goal of the act was to prevent discrimination against African Americans, not against gender-based wage discrimination. Pay equity as it related to the bill was not debated in the House. The Senate, however, added the Bennett Amendment, which stated that gender disparities in wage schedules can occur "if such differentiation is authorized by the provisions of the (Equal Pay Act)."

In 1975, as the result of a sex-based wage discrimination complaint filed with the EEOC, IUE v. Westinghouse began its arduous trip through the federal court system. The case was based on evidence that jobs at Westinghouse that were performed by women paid less than jobs held by men that required less skill, responsibility, and aptitude but were nonetheless rated higher than the women's jobs. For instance, a male janitorial job that rated 36 points was paid higher than a female inspector's job that rated 68 points. Westinghouse's defense was based on the transient nature of female employment, their relatively short-term commitment to Westinghouse, overtime limitations, and other "general sociological factors." The district court in reaching its decision ruled against the plaintiffs by claiming that the Bennett Amendment applied only to wage discrimination claims where the work performed by one gender was substantially the same as work performed by the other gender. In 1980 the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, arguing that the work performed by the two groups did not have to be substantially the same work. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case, allowing the appellate court decision to stand. In 1980, however, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a case involving nurses in Denver (Lemons v. City & County of Denver); the court strictly interpreted the Bennett Amendment to mean "equal" work. The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal to the decision.

Following this ruling various other courts let stand the interpretation that wage-based sex discrimination cases could not be upheld under Title VII unless the situation violated the Equal Pay Act. County of Washington v. Gunther successfully challenged this interpretation. The case was brought by female prison guards who were paid only 70 percent of what their male counterparts received. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and eventually the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs even though the jobs were not deemed to be equal. Women workers were thus not limited by the Bennett Amendment when the respective jobs were not the same. The courts, however, explained that Gunther was not a comparable-worth case and their decision did not require other courts hearing similar cases to make a subjective evaluation as to the relative worth of the involved jobs. The Court likewise did not accept or reject "comparable worth" as a legal theory.

The courts in general have been reluctant to look at comparable worth as a legal issue for a number of reasons, including lack of Congressional legislation, still existing confusion lingering over variant interpretations of the Bennett Amendment, and an unwillingness to interfere with market forces. This last concern addresses a reluctance to remove wage setting power from the private sector and make it a regulatory protocol. Many fear a "slippery slope" that would eventually lead to the courts making wage determinations for all of the private sector. (For a comprehensive discussion of the legal aspects of sex-based wage discrimination, see Mary V. Moore and Yohannan T. Abraham's series of articles in Public Personnel Management, entitled "Comparable Worth: Is It a Moot Issue?")


In 1979 women earned 62.5 percent of what men earned. By 1993 this figure had risen to 76.8 percent. In 1996, however, this figure dropped to 75 percent, where it remained through 1999. The disparity between men's and women's wages, however, changes as women age. Women between the ages of 16 and 24 earn more than 90 percent of what men earn, but for those women between the age of 25 and 54, the pay gap averages out to around 75 percent. Part of this is evidently due to welfare reform, which has caused thousands of low-skilled women to enter the job market, causing a downward pull on median wages.

There are other causes of this gender-based wage disparity. As quoted by Teresa Brady in Management Review, economist Dr. Bette Tokar presented her opinion on the subject: "Traditionally, most women have held very specific occupations, particularly the three S's—schoolteacher, secretary, and social worker—as well as nurse, waitress, etc. These 'women's jobs' were paid at low rates. Men often did not even consider such jobs because of the lack of prestige in doing 'women's work' and the low rate of pay." Mary V. Moore and Yohannan T. Abraham, who both teach finance and management, agreed. "The crux of the comparable worth argument focuses not on the differences in salaries men and women receive for doing the same job, but on the fact that women's jobs are devalued and paid less because they are women's jobs," they wrote in the journal Public Personnel Management.

Ames would also concur. Writing for Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Ames quoted studies supporting the notion that many women work in jobs marked by low wages and low prestige. She also quoted studies showing that jobs dominated by women paid less not because they were worth less to a company, but because they have always been dominated by women. Ames wrote in her article, "In other words, jobs in the same establishment requiring equivalent skills and responsibilities were paid differently on the basis of characteristics of the job's typical incumbent." She continued, "I accept as a stylized fact the conclusion of many researchers that women's work is widely devalued because it is women's work." What must be done according to Ames is to first devise a method for evaluating the worth of a job and secondly evaluate jobs against this criteria. "If, according to the established criteria, the jobs are deemed comparable, any disparity in wages between male and female jobs must be addressed," the New York sociologist wrote. There are problems with this, however, as Ames readily admitted. "How to address such disparities, as well as choices of worth criteria, are necessarily political decisions, and with each choice comes the opportunity to undermine the equity that is the avowed purpose of the process," she concluded.

Although the comparable-worth issue may have an ambiguous legal standing, many social analysts have well-formed convictions on its validity, its weaknesses, and, as some may even claim, its irrelevance. Kenneth Kovach, in a 1997 article on comparable worth in Canada, presented some of the concept's shortcomings in attempting to close the gender-based pay gap. "Equal pay law fails to address comparisons between dissimilar occupations. Comparable worth as a concept does not address market forces that may tend to segregate women into low wage jobs," wrote the human resource management professor. Kovach, who is also a human resource and industrial relations consultant, went on in the article to list other problems or situations, which he admitted are difficult to resolve via comparable worth. These include: women who are in low-paying jobs because of constraints outside of the labor market; women working in jobs for which no male comparator exists; those jobs that would merit low evaluation scores; the difficulty in making comparisons across establishments; and comparable worth being limited to comparisons of jobs determined to be of the same or similar value.

Moore and Abraham in their three-part article provided an admirable and well-balanced summation of the arguments both for and against comparable worth. Advocates of comparable worth generally believe that wage discrimination against women is historical and it continues to be perpetuated today. Advocates also feel that employees should receive a salary or wage in proportion to the value or the worth of their job and that this worth should be determined by a nonmarket method so as to eliminate historical bias. Finally, if discrimination is determined via this job evaluation process, then women's salaries should be upgraded so as to be comparable to men's jobs of equal or similar worth.


The central argument against comparable worth focuses on neoclassical arguments of supply and demand in the marketplace. A mandated policy of comparable worth, opponents argue, would disrupt the efficiency of the market with subsequent and serious economic repercussions—decrease in efficiency, increase in prices, and dis-employment of low-wage workers. Wages, they feel, should be determined by supply and demand and only when wages remain flexible can labor markets equalize the forces of supply and demand. Again as it relates to supply and demand, mandated job evaluations would be inherently subjective and there is only one credible indicator of job worth—supply and demand as the determinant of what an employer is willing to pay. And again as it relates to supply and demand, if wages are raised through mandates, more women will enter these occupations, thus driving wages back down again.

Opponents continue with their laissez-faire arguments. Government or judicial mandates would abridge the freedom of employers to determine wages either unilaterally or through collective bargaining and this would be an unwarranted government intervention in the free enterprise system. Antagonists also argue that the pay differential is the result of voluntary behavior on the part of many women and thus not explicitly or implicitly discriminatory. They cite many studies purporting that women generally spend less time in the job market and are more prone than men to leave the job market for familial reasons. Because women invest less of their "human capital" in their jobs, it follows that their wages or return on investment will likewise be less. Women also choose jobs requiring less education, training, and responsibility because of the more flexible nature of these jobs. And in a bit of a turnaround, opponents argue that instituting comparable-worth policies would further segregate the workplace, as a policy of increasing wages in low-skill jobs would discourage women from moving out of these positions.

Arguments for comparable worth presented to labor economists generally fall on deaf ears. In 1996 Robert Whaples of Wake Forest University conducted a survey—which included questions on comparable worth—of 193 randomly selected labor economists belonging to the American Economic Association. Of those economists surveyed, only 9 percent supported adoption of comparable worth policies throughout the United States. Another 8 percent agreed but with provisos attached—leaving 83 percent against the policy; 89 percent of the economists disagreed with the notion that comparable worth would increase labor market efficiency and 56 percent did not believe it would increase labor market equity. Finally, 73 percent believed that occupational segregation is caused by worker choice and not by labor market discrimination.

SEE ALSO : Gender Discrimination

[ Michael Knes ]


Ames, Lynda J. "Fixing Women's Wages: The Effectiveness of Comparable Worth Policies." Industrial and Labor Relations Review 48, no. 4 (July 1995): 709-24.

Brady, Teresa. "How Equal Is Equal Pay?" Management Review, March 1998, 59-61.

Figart, Deborah M., and Peggy Kahn. Contesting the Market: Pay Equity and the Politics of Economic Restructuring. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.

Kovach, Kenneth A. "An Overview and Assessment of Comparable Worth Based on Large Scale Implementation." Public Personnel Management 26, no. I (spring 1997): 109-22.

Moore, Mary V., and Yohannan T. Abraham. "Comparable Worth: Is It a Moot Issue?" Part I; Part 11: "The Legal and Judicial Posture"; Part Ill: 'Controversy, Implications, and Measurement." Public Personnel Management 21, no. 4 (winter 1992): 455-70; 23, no. 2 (summer 1994): 263-85; 24, no. 3 (fall 1995): 291-313.

Rhoads, Steven E. Incomparable Worth: Pav Equity Meets the Market. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Whaples, Robert. "Is There Consensus among American Labor Economists?: Survey Results on Forty Propositions." Journal of Labor Research 17, no. 4 (fall 1996): 728-29.

Young, Cathy. "Phony Pay Gap Statistic Breeds Unneeded Angst." Detroit News, 3 February 1999, 13A.

User Contributions:

Robert Franklin
Report this comment as inappropriate
Mar 27, 2006 @ 5:17 pm
This article takes on faith that the difference in earnings by men and women is the result of discrimination, either historical, present or both. That notion is refuted by available evidence and common sense.

The US Census Bureau statistics show that women earn about 75.6% of what men earn. The methodology to arrive at that consisted of interviewing men and women and finding out if they worked, and, if they did, how much they made. So those statistics collected into one group full-time workers, non-workers and part-time workers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also surveyed 21,000 working men and women in 2004 and found that men worked on average about 8 hours per day doing paid labor and women worked about 7 hours per day. If they are paid equal wages, that would make up about 12.5% of the 24.4% differential found by the Census Bureau.

But the BLS surveyed only working men and women. More men (about 86%) than women (about 77%) work in the United States, according to the US Labor Department. That leaves a pay difference of about 2.9% without considering the lower seniority women typically have.

Second, common sense tells us that (a) employers would never hire men if they could get equally-qualified women to do the job at 75% of the cost, and (b) if women were discriminated against to the extent that a 25% pay gap were created, there would be tens of millions of wage and hour lawsuits pending in courts across America. Needless to say, that is not the case.

Please make it clear that the gap in earnings has little if anything to do with discrimination and much to do with the choices people make.

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: