For women slogging along in low-paying, low-opportunity jobs--in other words, the majority of American women workers--the fight for employment equity may seem like a lonely and discouraging enterprise.
It probably does not appear to these workers that most of their fellow Americans think they've had a raw deal and something should be done about it. But according to a national survey conducted for the National Committee on Pay Equity, Americans, both men and women, are squarely on the side of continued efforts to end sex discrimination and achieve pay equity, not only by giving equal pay for equal work, but by re-evaluating the monetary worth of jobs held mainly by women to make up for past discrimination.
The national opinion survey, conducted by the Boston polling firm Martilla & Kiley, found that 69% of Americans believe that as a rule female employees are not paid as fairly for their work as men. About half believe that the women's movement has not gone far enough to achieve equal rights and opportunities for women, and only 16% think the women's movement has gone too far.
A Serious Inequity
Ignorance has probably been a factor in public opinion about women's wages, the survey found. When presented with the fact that the average woman earns 60 cents for every dollar a man earns, 65% of the respondents said they had not been aware of this, and, when informed the 60-cent figure was accurate, 83% said they regarded the inequity as a serious problem that needs to be corrected.
A significant finding in the survey was that 79% of Americans say they believe that offering equal pay for equal work does not go far enough to solve the problem. They support the controversial concept of comparable worth--that jobs done primarily by women have been undervalued because they were done by women and that the worth of various kinds of jobs must be re-evaluated in order to end sex discrimination.
Large numbers of respondents agreed that three of the fields traditionally dominated by women workers are underpaid: teachers (76% think teachers are underpaid); registered nurses (66% said underpaid); and secretaries (55% said underpaid). By contrast, most men and women thought that workers in such "male fields" as truck drivers, engineers and carpenters were paid "about right."
The finding that most Americans support the concept of comparable worth is gratifying to Catherine Collette, assistant director for Women's Rights and the Community Action Department of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Representing thousands of women government workers in traditionally women's fields--clerical workers, nurses, social workers, librarians--AFSCME has been one of the most militant forces in the country in pushing for pay equity, and has won millions of dollars for women workers in pay discrimination negotiations and lawsuits around the country.
Three Significant Cases
Collette, in Los Angeles recently, said that three cases are particularly significant:
--The first payments are being distributed now in the massive sex discrimination lawsuit against the state of Washington. The litigation took 10 years and resulted in a settlement of more than $100 million in pay equity adjustments. "We are waiting for the other shoe to drop," she said. "Washington was a settlement and never went to the Supreme Court."
--The San Jose municipal employees' strike of 1981, the nation's first pay equity strike. "It was the first national publicity (for the issue) and had a major influence," Collette said. One form this influence took was that the San Jose strike attracted the attention of conservative groups who became more active in opposing comparable worth.
--The third milestone case, Collette said, was here in Los Angeles. In this case, which won adjustments of 28% for city workers in female-dominated jobs, the significant factor was that the union obtained the adjustments without having to first do a lengthy job evaluation study, Collette said.
Collette is pleased with the public support revealed by the poll because, in her view, the concept of comparable worth is unnecessarily controversial because conservative groups and business organizations that oppose it have distorted its meaning, she said. "Opposition to the equal rights amendment is the same as opposition to comparable worth and pay equity. Business organizations are worried about profits," she said. Perhaps the biggest red herring, or seen to be so by comparable worth supporters, is the concern of opponents that jobs cannot be objectively evaluated for their financial worth. Says Collette: "Job evaluations to determine worth are the same as have been used for 50 years. It is only since they have been used to describe sex discrimination that employers have objected."