All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1989

Book Review: Equity and Gender by Ellen Frankel Paul

Transaction Books, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08903 • 1988 • 192 pages • $24.95 cloth, $12.95 paper

Ellen Frankel Paul’s new book may be greeted with skepticism: Why do we need another book on “comparable worth,” when that theory is deader than a door-nail?

The answer is simple: rumors of comparable worth’s well-deserved demise are greatly exaggerated. Though presently discredited as a viable discrimination theory in Federal litigation, comparable worth is very much alive in state legislatures and in the hearts and minds of radical feminist groups and their allies.

As Paul notes, ten states have implemented the results of comparable worth studies, and 20 have commissioned studies. Some states are considering proposals to extend comparable worth to the private sector. And Congress is considering imposing comparable worth at the Federal level, at a potential cost of billions of dollars. In a new administration, comparable worth advocates may gain even greater momentum.

Of course, it’s not called “comparable worth” anymore, but rather the more benign-sounding “pay equity.” But scratch the veneer of pay equity and the same old beast emerges: a concept that, as Paul describes it, would destroy “the very foundation of our market-based economic system.”

Paul, who is affiliated with the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, has a superb ability both to take complex issues and translate them into English, and to take simplistic rhetoric and explain its serious ramifications. Since comparable worth is at once both deceptively simple and enormously complex, Equity and Gender provides a vital tool with which to effectively defend the market.

Paul begins with a dispassionate and comprehensive review of the arguments in favor of comparable worth. She observes at the outset that” ‘[e]qual pay for equal work’ is not the objective of the comparable worth advocates, for that standard has been the law of the land since 1963.” Rather, they believe the market “is corrupted by discrimination, for nothing else can sufficiently explain discrepancies between women’s wages and men’s.”

This discriminating “wage gap” can be redressed, the theory holds, by a scientific assessment of the objective worth of jobs to employers, to which salaries would be calibrated. Thus, Paul explains, “comparable worth pro vides the hope of a quick and easy fix for the injustices foisted upon women by the marketplace.”

Paul then presents the arguments of comparable worth opponents, which she observes are primarily economic. The wage gap, they argue, is created by the combined impact of women’s job choices, expanding work-force options for women, and entry by women into the labor market in growing numbers. And, they add, the wage gap is diminishing as women gain more experience and enter traditionally male jobs. Moreover, they argue that comparable worth would be enormously expensive to implement, thereby reducing America’s ability to compete.

Paul then turns to the progress of comparable worth in the courts and legislatures, and finds that while comparable worth has been dealt serious setbacks in the courts, it is winning the day in the legislative arena. The bulk of the book thus comprises a useful summary of the arguments pro and con and the future prospects for comparable worth.

Paul concludes with her own views on the issue, and comes down solidly in favor of the market as the arbiter of salaries. Jobs do not have inherent value apart from the market, she argues. She concludes that comparable worth “depend[s] upon some rather dubious assumptions” and “embrace[s] a view that is at odds with our American tradition, [is] unpersuasive as an ideal, and incapable of being put into practice without chaotic results.”

But the bottom line for Paul is that comparable worth destroys the freedom of choice that the market provides. She observes that the “women’s movement in the late 1960s and 70s emphasized women’s capacity, women’s ability to perform jobs traditionally monopolized by men. Comparable worth sets a different agenda, portraying women in an unflattering light that enshrines their incapacity. Instead of encouraging women to engage in new ventures, it concedes that they will be secretaries, nurses, and teachers for a long time to come and only asks that they be paid more.”

Nonetheless, Paul does not claim the moral high ground for adversaries of comparable worth. At the outset, Paul agrees with comparable worth proponents that ultimately “justice and equity must triumph over efficiency.” But she fails to make the point strongly enough that in bargaining over wages, these values go hand in hand. While Paul seems to acknowledge that purely utilitarian arguments are inadequate to resist comparable worth, she does not present a compelling moral argument in favor of the market.

What defenders of the market must do is to expose comparable worth as a paternalistic theory that assumes women are incapable of succeeding on the level playing field guaranteed by the present anti-discrimination laws. They must also show it to be an elitist concept, denigrating the value of blue-collar jobs. And they must raise the Orwellian specter of a commission of “experts” determining wages in some mystical fashion and supplanting the will of individuals. Paul makes these points, but not graphically enough to recapture the terms of the debate.

These were the points I attempted to illustrate when I represented several female prison guards in opposing the American Nurses Association’s unsuccessful comparable worth lawsuit against the State of Illinois in 1984- 85. My clients were women who defied societal stereotypes and took on dangerous and unpleasant jobs in order to earn higher wages—only to have a board of experts conclude that entry-level secretaries were “worth” more than prison guards. Such a notion falls under the weight of its own absurdity.

Tactics like these betray comparable worth as not a “women’s” issue at all, but as an issue of government control versus individual autonomy. The dignity and freedom of women requires the demise of comparable worth. Paul’s book, thankfully, provides a wealth of ammunition to hasten that demise.

(Clint Bolick is director of the Landmark Legal Foundation Center for Civil Rights in Washington, and author of Changing Course: Civil Rights at the Crossroads [New Brunswick, N J: Transaction Books, 1988].)

  • Appointed in January 2016, Clint Bolick is a Justice on the Supreme Court of Arizona. Previously, he served as Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute, President of the Alliance for School Choice, and co-founder of the Institute for Justice. Clint is a 2006 recipient of the Bradley Prize, author of multiple books on topics from immigration to school choice, and regularly appears in and on nationally syndicated television shows, newspapers, and magazines.