All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 1985

For Work of Comparable Worth

Kenneth McDonald is a free-lance writer and editor living in Toronto.

In the State of Washington, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees got a court ruling that requires the state to pay the same wage to men and women for work of “comparable worth.”

In an interview, (US News & World Report, December 24, 1984) the president of the union said that “the state used want ads that said ‘male only apply’ or ‘female only apply’. Women could apply for jobs such as food service worker and laundry aide, which paid less than jobs for men such as plumber and truck-driver . . . . We’re talking about jobs that are not exactly the same but are of equal worth to the employer.”

Comparable worth rulings have followed in Minnesota, Iowa and a number of American cities. In Canada the Ontario Federation of Labor is pressing the provincial government to legislate equal pay for work of equal value.

At issue is the principle of equality before the law. When it treats people equally, the law takes no account of the differences that distinguish them, only of the way they conduct themselves. All who obey the law are at liberty. All who break it have the right to equal treatment. All are different, but all are treated alike.

People recognize the principle in their business dealings. It is commonly accepted that people who do the same job should be paid the same wage. The wage is determined by what the completed work is worth to the entity that contracted for it to be done.

To insist that jobs be done by men would be as injurious to the principle as to restrict jobs to women. At a time when the nature of work in industrialized countries is changing rapidly, any move that hinders the freedom of men and women to compete for jobs can only weaken the common effort.

Men and women are more likely to put their talents to good use in work of their choice than if they are coerced into taking particular work. The community gains accordingly. When they are coerced into taking other work, in which their talents are wasted, the community loses. It loses more than the value of the work they might have performed. It loses freedom.

The fact that everyone is different denies that any one can be equal to any other. It is equality before the law that constitutes their freedom to use the qualities that distinguish them.

Those qualities are displayed through the differences in material success or failure that result from their possessors’ freedom to exercise the qualities. But material success or failure is not the sole measure of a person’s worth, only of particular talents or skills. Measuring another’s worth as a human being (as distinct from value in the performance of a job) is beyond human competence.

Nevertheless attempts are made, through the coercive power of the state, to change the material outcome of people’s differences. The state and its agencies attempt to redistribute income in accordance with political theorists’ notions of equity. At once we have left equality before the law, in which different people are treated alike, and admitted that their differences entitle them to be treated differently.

Thus the State of Washington must now concern itself not with what a particular job is worth but with who does it. If it is done by a woman, she must be paid the same as a man who does a different job. The principle is not equal pay for equal work, but equal pay for different work.

Assessing the comparable worth of the two jobs is as much a matter of opinion as assessing the comparable worth of the man and woman who do them. It interferes with the freedom of both people to tackle either job.

Equal pay for equal work needs no defense except against the misuse of words. Equity is fairness. Equal pay for equal work is fair because everyone sees it to be fair. Equal pay for work of equal value is fair only in the minds of the people who make the assessment. Yet it has come to be called “pay equity.” If it were called “worth equity” the fallacy would be apparent.

It is no accident that the first applications of comparable worth were in government jobs. Because it is accountable to the public, the civil service naturally looks to paper qualifications and standardized tests to determine eligibility for jobs and benefits. Admitting a consultant’s opinion of comparable worth may be seen simply as adding one more measurement to an already structured system. But that does not make it right.

Nor would it be right to extend the idea to the private sector. Imposing arbitrary controls would go directly against the engagement of human ingenuity and enterprise that the private sector depends upon for vitality.