Comparable Worth Jessica Troilo
Comparable worth between men and women has been defined fairly simply as equal pay for equal work (Acker, 1989), but enforcing comparable worth has, and continues to be, a complex subject. Researchers and legislators have tried to find the solution that would eradicate, or at least greatly lessen, the disparity between men and women’s wages throughout the past 40 years, but according to the 2005 US Census, women who work full-time still earn about 25 percent less than men, on average. This paper, therefore, will review theories that attempt to explain the wage-gap, will review comparable worth legislation, will provide examples of the wage-gap in certain professions, and will discuss the effect gender has on comparable worth as a way to understand why the wage-gap continues to exist. Comparable Worth Although the phrase “equal work,” which implies equal pay for the exact same job, is used in explaining comparable worth, “equivalent work” is often how legislators enforce comparable worth (Levine & Dale, 2003). Equivalent work refers to positions that involve similar skills, such as education levels, training, responsibility, and working conditions. Advocates of comparable worth do not agree with those who feel that the market sets wages based on the demand and supply of labor, but feel that, instead, gender interrupts labor market functions and leads to a devaluation in women’s wages as compared to men’s (England, 1992). This devaluation in women’s wages, and the accompanying difference between women and men’s wages, is called the wage-gap. Since the 1960s, the wage-gap between men and women has been shrinking (US Census, 2002). Among men and women who worked full-time for the entire year in the 1960s, women earned 60.7 percent of men’s wages. The widest gap occurred in 1973, when
3 the percentage dropped to 56.6. By 2002, women earned 77.5 percent of men’s wages, but the gap widened a bit by 2005 to 75.5 percent. Despite comparable worth policies and the increased education and labor force participation of women, the wage-gap remains a consistent aspect of women’s professions. Three Theories used in Explaining the Wage-gap Researchers find that women’s concentration in lower paying occupations is connected to the wage-gap (Tomaskovic-Devey, 1993), but cite different reasons to explain this. One explanation is based on the devaluation theory, which does not question why men and women hold different positions, but attempts to explain why typically male positions are better paid than typically female positions (England, 1992). Devaluation theorists assume that the lower status of women in society spills over into how jobs are constructed. In other words, jobs held predominately by women are assumed to be less valuable and demanding, which, therefore, provides justification for the lower wages women earn. This type of discrimination is not currently addressed by existing labor policies. A second theory that attempts to explain the relatively lower pay of women’s jobs as compared to men’s jobs assumes that employers prefer hiring men, especially in higherpaying jobs, and is known as the relative attractiveness theory of occupational segregation by gender (Strober, 1984). Employers will fill their higher-paid positions with men and, though they would prefer to hire men for all levels of jobs, will settle for hiring women in the lowerpaying jobs. These lower-paying positions are typically those positions that men do not want. Although laws and policies are in place to counter the type of discrimination this theory describes, it is likely that this type of job discrimination continues.
4 A third theory assumes that women choose less demanding, and therefore lowerpaying, jobs because of their focus on motherhood (Filer, 1990). Women accept lower-paying positions because they tend to be less demanding and more flexible, allowing women to work around their family lives. Differently put, women will assumedly spend more time at home, so they have less of a need to invest in paid-labor skills (Levine & Dale, 2003). Further, it is assumed that women move in and out of the labor force and look for positions that have the least potential for growth. These theorists assume that if the right variables would be controlled (e.g., flexibility, composition of labor force), there would be no differences between the wages of men and women. Researchers, however, who study the wage-gap have not yet found evidence that supports this theory (Treiman & Hartmann, 1981). Regardless of the theoretical reasons for the disparity between women and men’s paid labor, legislators have tried to reduce it through a variety of reforms. Legislation and Comparable Worth At a State of the Union address in 1999, President Clinton stated that U.S. society must enforce equal pay between the sexes, yet the process through which equal pay would occur was largely ignored, which may not be surprising when reviewing the history of equal pay legislation. The first piece of legislation to enforce equal pay was the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which required employers to pay employees performing work involving the same skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions equally (Gunderson, 1994). A year later, the Civil Rights Act (1964) made all discrimination illegal, and Title VII under this act specifically prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national religion. This Act was amended in 1991 in order to strengthen the language regarding discrimination. Title II of this Act is known as the Glass Ceiling Act and specifically
5 addresses the representation of women and minorities in management and higher-level positions and recognizes the need to remove barriers to these positions. This same year also brought an increase in the powers the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Prior to this change, the EEOC operated on a slim budget and always under the threat of government completely withdrawing its funding. Although funding became more certain, the EEOC continues to be understaffed. Although equal pay laws have been improved upon, researchers find that the laws are poorly enforced and those in need of the laws’ protection find the process lengthy and difficulty to navigate (DiNitto & McNeece, 1997). Examples of the Wage-Gap Researchers find that there is a wage-gap between men and women in a variety of professions, but some occupations have a wider wage-gap than others. According to Gibelman (2003), the wage-gap is closely connected with the percentage of women in an occupation; as the percentage of women rises, the weekly salary for that occupation decreases. For example, the average weekly salary in the 1990s for child-care professions, where over 90% of employees are female, was $236.70. Surveying service workers, of which only 20% are female, earn $527.77 per week. Care work. Researchers also find that occupations with a high proportion of females have slow increases in wages (Karlin, England, & Richardson, 2002). Although policy makes discriminatory hiring illegal, it does not protect or limit the devaluation of those professions with a large proportion of female workers. Care work, whether for children or elderly adults, has typically been the domain of women; it is implicit that women provide this care out of love and obligation (England, Budig, & Folbre, 2002). It may be easy to only moderately pay
6 women for care work because women tend to provide this type of care. There is a cultural assumption that women not only want to provide care for others, but also want to provide care for free; love is payment enough (England, Budig, & Folbre). Folbre and Nelson (2000) argue that due to American culture’s affinity for dichotomies there is a general sense that work should be rewarded with love or money, but not both. Thus, care work receives less pay than other positions because it is devalued and expected that women provide it for free. This devaluation is true regardless of gender as others in that those who work in caring professions, whether male or female, earn about 5-6% less than those in non-caring professions (England, Budig, & Folbre, 2002). Men, however, are often penalized far less than women. For example, female childcare workers are penalized almost four times more than men in this profession; whereas women suffer a 41% pay penalty, men are penalized 12% as compared to those in non-caring professions. If a woman is a self-employed child-care worker, her penalty percentage jumps to 69%. Education as a mediator? Some may argue that the more highly (male-dominated) paid professions require more education and skills as compared to lower (female-dominated) paid professions. Other researchers find that, though women are increasingly enrolling into and graduating from traditionally male occupations (e.g., computer science, business, natural sciences), the wage-gap to operate independently of education. For example, Bowen and Bok (1998) found that 20 years after graduating, men’s wages were 65 percent higher than women, after accounting for class rank. In another study of law school graduates, female lawyers earned about 20 percent less than their male peers 15 years after graduation (Wood, Corcoran, & Courant, 1993). Finally, researchers find that salaries for human service occupations have not risen much in the last 40 years, even when controlling for inflation (Gibelman &
7 Schervish, 1997). Although theorists, such as Filer (1990), who believe that there would be no differences between the wages of men and women if the right variables are controlled would seem to be incorrect in their assumptions. Gender Stereotypes Perhaps implicit in the failure of legislation to provide substantial improvements in pay discrimination and of researchers to find the key piece that would solve the comparable worth puzzle is sex-role stereotyping and socialization. Gender stereotypes are generalized perceptions of men and women (Osmond & Thorne, 1993; Prentice & Carranza, 2002). For example, men are often stereotyped as ambitious, athletic, leaders, and selfish whereas women are often stereotyped as warm, kind, and interested in children. Other researchers find that men are stereotyped for their business sense, which includes characteristics such as being career-oriented, rational, and smart, and having high-self esteem and professional appearances. Most researchers find that men consistently are perceived to rate low on characteristics related to family life, such as being kind, interested in children, and warm (Auster & Ohm, 2000; Prentice & Carranza). Individuals typically behave in ways consistent with their gender’s stereotypes because those who depart from gender stereotypes are often punished socially and discriminated against (Fiske, Bersoff, Borgida, Deaux, & Heilman, 1991). Stereotyping theorists postulate that individuals and groups who act and behave in ways inconsistent with social convention will be the targets of negative attention (Fiske & Stevens, 1993). For example, men who are interested in children and are not career-focused, behaviors that are inconsistent with masculine stereotypes, may be perceived by others as insecure and weak (Prentice & Carranza, 2002). Adhering to traditional gender-role stereotypes also reinforces
8 women’s perceived lack of business-sense, which may further reduce the number of women entering management positions and receipt of equal pay (Dobrzynksi, 1996). Conclusions It is interesting to note that, through this reading of comparable worth and the (numerous) examples of the wage-gap across and between women, across and between occupations, and across and between education levels, many scholars focused most of their attention on giving examples of the wage-gap and only paid lip-service to what I felt would be the broader causes of the wage-gap and the lack of equal pay. At the same time, I realize that I, too, fell into this trap as my paper also reviews examples of the lack of equal pay without addressing much of the larger societal structures. Perhaps this is the difficulty in understanding this topic; on the one hand, it is necessary to understand the specifics of the wage-gap, but on the other, it is also necessary to understand the wider, but possibly more veiled, processes behind the wage-gap, such as gender role socialization and gender stereotypes. To fully study comparable worth requires acknowledgement that men’s jobs, and perhaps men-in-general, are of more value in the labor market than women’s jobs and women-in-general. I do not dispute the usefulness of studies that provide statistical evidence of the continued wage-gap, however, these studies need to be balanced with those that examine attitudes held about different professions, how “value” is defined and applied to different professions, perceptions held about work and workers (e.g., how people define “good” workers, what is considered work), and the gendered nature of professions. To get caught-up in the numbers or percentage game is to limit our view on the real issue: that comparable worth is as much about women and men receiving equal wages as it is about women and men
9 receiving equal amounts of value throughout the culture. Although language is powerful, legislation on and discussions about comparable worth cannot, and have not, changed our notions about the type of work that is valued. Until we begin to discuss the value we place on certain professions, and perhaps certain genders, comparable worth will continue to elude us.
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