SAN DIEGO — As the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Anthony M. Kennedy comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee this month, the concept of comparable worth will be one of the controversies.
In 1985, Kennedy, a federal appeals court judge, overturned a lower court's decision ordering the State of Washington to pay as much as $1 billion to 15,500 female employees. These women had cited a 1974 study showing that the state, like society at large, systematically paid lower salaries in female-dominated occupations than in male-dominated occupations requiring similar levels of training and responsibility.
Without disputing the study, Kennedy ruled that the state had neither "created the market disparity" nor "been shown to have been motivated by impermissible sex-based considerations in setting salaries." Thus, no discriminatory motives could be inferred "from the state's participation in the market system."
In rejecting the notion that comparable worth addresses a serious existing form of discrimination, Kennedy ignored many post-1964 Civil Rights Act cases won by plaintiffs who demonstrated that apparently non-discriminatory screening criteria (for employment, promotion or school admission) produced discriminatory results in practice. Most troubling, perhaps, are the long-term implications of this institutionalized male-female wage gap even as earlier sexual barriers to job mobility are lowered if not removed.
Society suffers, not just women. Consider the current crisis in nursing employment and recruitment. Even as the American Hospital Assn. noted that job vacancy rates among staff nurses had doubled between 1985 and 1986, experienced nurses were leaving the profession. Nursing school enrollments have dropped from about 250,000 in 1983 to 180,000 in 1987. Female college freshmen now prefer medicine to nursing as a career by a ratio of 10 to 8, according to an annual UCLA survey. In 1968 the ratio was 1 to 3.
Like other such care-taking occupations as teaching and secretarial work, nursing is characterized by low salaries, low status, lack of professional autonomy and poor advancement potential. Although beginning salaries average $21,000, salaries for experienced nurses plateau around $30,000. An aging society with increasing health needs is imperiled by a situation that threatens the quality of care while demoralizing and overworking the present staff. But a chronic nursing shortage will persist until either the concept of comparable worth is accepted and implemented or the occupational distribution of working women matches that of men, forcing nursing employers to offer competitive salaries.
Yet comparable worth offends the sensibilities of many liberals as well as traditionalists because it would seem to reward women who remain in stereotypical occupations. The assumption that male-dominated occupations are inherently more desirable--economically if not socially--is widespread even in the feminist camp and too often goes unchallenged. It originates in an older marketplace; classically, the measure of productivity for any occupation was the prevailing wage rate. Transferring from low-paying to higher-paying work made societal as well as personal sense since, by definition, human resources were now being used more productively. Accordingly, the low wages of so-called pink-collar occupations indicate they are less productive than other occupations.
But that ignores the history of the economics of discrimination. Teaching and office work were male occupations until the late 19th Century. Men left because higher-paying options appeared--options closed to women. Classical economics says that had teaching competed openly for labor, wages would have risen to a point reflective of its true economic utility. Instead, low wages in schools and offices prevailed because exclusion from an open labor market crowded women into a few occupations while it reduced their bargaining power.
Until now society has reaped a "consumer's surplus," loosely defined as the bonus enjoyed when paying less for a job than the job's productivity warrants. This will not continue in a world where women enjoy unconstrained alternatives.
Today, counselors and organizations urge women to avoid low-income occupations in a society where status and income are often linked. A national campaign encouraging young women to reject underpaid pink-collar fields such as education is being planned by the 140,000 member National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs.
True to economic prediction, the most capable women are going where the rewards are highest. Comparable worth is therefore inevitable if society wants to retain and attract qualified workers in pink-collar fields. Indeed, step-by-step readjustment has already begun in income, status and career structure; even in the absence of legislation, individual settlements have taken place.