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Comparable Worth Concept

October 13, 1985

It continues to amaze me how few people understand the concept of comparable worth or pay equity, and insist on referring to the free market as though a totally free market based upon supply and demand actually exists.

The market is an historic development rather than an expression of natural law. The theory underlying comparable worth begins with the observation that the sex/gender system as it has historically been incorporated into the economy has created a context in which women's work, whatever its content, is systematically devalued. Supporters of comparable worth argue that compensation should be independent of the social characteristics of the workers and based instead upon factors such as education, skill, and level of responsibility.

Information on the wage gap is plentiful. The Institute for Social Research located at the University of Michigan (which has the world's largest repository of computer-readable social science data and an international reputation of excellence) recently concluded an extensive examination of this topic. Multiple explanations for wage disparity were considered, including age, sex, race, education, workers' attitudes, occupation, involuntary unemployment, illness, relocation, and family composition changes. The conclusion of the largest, most impressive study ever done in this area was that the sex-based wage gap reflects institutionalized discrimination against women in the paid labor force.

Comparable worth is the only proposal that addresses this problem. To protest that it undermines the free market is simply an exercise in pedantry. A truly free market based solely upon supply and demand would not permit farm supports, a standard minimum wage, loans to the Chrysler Corp., nor would it forbid discrimination based upon factors such as race, sex, etc., nor criticize foreign competitors for free market competition. To insist that we have a free market in this country reflects a limited understanding of the concept.

The president of the Merchant and Manufacturers Assn. wrote to this paper implying that comparable worth would be too expensive and price us out of the world market. The same argument was used against freeing slaves. One of the facts that opponents of comparable worth fail to realize is that keeping women underemployed and underpaid relative to their skills and abilities is very costly. It results in reduced productivity and sustained economic costs to society, to say nothing of the costs that arise when we are forced to question both the credibility of society's widely endorsed goal of equal opportunity and the legitimacy of an economic system that sets labor market rules based upon old, tired, sex-role stereotypes.

WENDY LOZANO

El Toro

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