Gender equality in the workplace is an ongoing social, ethical and political issue, even with laws in place that make it illegal for employers to discriminate based on gender. The notion of comparable worth refers to determining the value of jobs to ensure that jobs traditionally held by women receive the same compensation as those traditionally held by men when each job requires the same skills, education and risk levels.
The primary advantage of comparable worth is fairness to men and women alike. Under a system of comparable worth, workers receive wages based on how demanding their jobs are, not on their gender or any gender associations their positions carry. For example, teaching positions in vocational programs are more often filled by men, while women hold more nursing jobs. Because the two occupations require the same level of knowledge, education and training, comparable worth includes equal pay for the two jobs.
One of the long-range advantages of comparable worth is an increase in economic opportunities for women. Professions that usually attract women tend to pay less than comparable positions that attract men, which leads to lower wages for women. Some women find themselves unable to manage a household or enjoy a reasonable standard of living alone, which leads to reliance on a second income from a spouse. Comparable worth ensures that women have an equal chance to serve as heads of households and self-reliant income earners.
One of the disadvantages of a comparable worth system is the cost to employers. Activists and advocates who support comparable worth ask employers who represent industries that hire large numbers of women to increase their pay rates until they are equal to comparable positions in male-dominated industries. This raises the cost of payroll for employers and reduces their profit. Rising wages without an increase in employee productivity could also lead to layoffs and a competitive disadvantage for the employers who make changes to accommodate comparable worth.
Another drawback to comparable worth is the difficulty inherent in analyzing and valuing jobs. Different methods rank jobs differently, calculating the relative values of college education requirements, specialized training needs, average hours worked, workplace risks and stress levels and level of responsibility. No method is perfect at determining which jobs are in fact comparable, and employers must either make these difficult determinations themselves or submit to an outside analysis that determines what they should pay their workers. This leaves a great deal of room for disagreement and is among the reasons that comparable worth is a general concept rather than a matter of formal law or policy.