Last week, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library released thousands of pages of records related to Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. Among them were writings on the doctrine of “comparable worth.” He wasn’t a fan—Roberts called comparable worth “highly objectionable” and “a staggeringly pernicious law.” What’s comparable worth, and what’s so bad about it?
The doctrine of comparable worth states that women and men should receive equal pay for jobs that are deemed to be of equal value. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 guarantee that men and women who perform the same job will receive the same wage from an employer. Proponents of comparable worth argue that the same principle should apply across professions. If a male-dominated vocation and a female-dominated vocation are of “comparable worth,” then members of those professions should receive the same salary. For example, if working in a laundry is as difficult and important as driving a truck—and if laundry workers are mostly female and truck drivers are mostly male—then laundry workers should earn the same as truck drivers.
In 1974, the state of Washington conducted a pioneering study of wage inequities in its civil service. Researchers assigned “worth”-points to 121 different jobs according to four categories: knowledge and skills necessary, mental demands, degree of responsibility, and working conditions. Salaries for predominately (at least 70 percent) male jobs were compared with predominantly female jobs of equal point value. Electricians, for one, were measured against secretaries since both jobs were “worth” 197 points. (The rating system had its quirks: Fisheries patrol officers were deemed to be worth 382 points, more than biologists and civil engineers.) The study found that in the Washington civil service, workers in female-dominated professions earned 20 percent less than those in male-dominated professions of comparable worth.
By 1989, about 20 states (including Washington) had tried to restructure their civil service pay scales according to the principle of comparable worth. That typically meant that the state would devise its own rating system and the state legislature would earmark millions of dollars to bring the salaries of underpaid female professions to the level of their male counterparts. The results were mixed. A follow-up study in Washington found that the wage gap had shrunk significantly. Job segregation remained unchanged, though, and many male civil servants moved to the private sector.
The issue gained national significance in 1983, when a federal judge ruled that Title VII protections applied to different jobs of equivalent value. (The 1983 decision was overturned on appeal two years later; comparable worth now seems to be a dead issue in the courts.) Comparable worth thus became a campaign issue. Presidential hopeful Walter Mondale endorsed it; the Reagan administration, including John Roberts, opposed it.
Critics of the policy argued (and continue to argue) that it’s impossible to measure the true value of a job since economic conditions are so variable. Important factors were also left out of the rating systems, like a given job’s prestige, how much fun it is, or its value to a specific community. Instead of creating a continually updated table of wages, critics say, the government should let the free market determine the relative worth of different jobs.
For the most part, the adjustments to civil service pay scales that were made in the 1980s were never repealed, but they haven’t been updated, either. To ensure that jobs of comparable worth continue to earn equal pay, states would have to study the wage gap at regular intervals and adjust the pay scale appropriately.
Explainer thanks Heidi Hartmann of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Jennifer Glass of the University of Iowa.