Should employers be permitted to pay secretaries less than they pay truck drivers? No, say feminists, who maintain that such wage disparities are devious violations of the law against sexual discrimination in employment. "For the average woman who works…I do believe that this is the issue of the 1980s," says a former chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "This is the civil rights issue of the '80s," concurs the mayor of San Jose, California, Janet Hayes.
The name of "the issue of the '80s" is "comparable worth." And the argument proponents make is as follows:
Women are as intelligent and as competent as men. Why, then, do they earn, on average, only 59 percent as much as men do? Because they are systematically segregated in jobs that are traditionally performed mainly by females—like nurses, secretaries, librarians—and that are, therefore, traditionally underpaid. Half of all working women are relegated to jobs that are at least 70 percent female, and about one-fifth are in jobs that are 95 percent female. "Not only do women do different work than men," says a newly released study by a division of the National Academy of Sciences, "but also the work women do is paid less, and the more an occupation is dominated by women the less it pays." The present legal requirements that women be given equal pay for equal work, that they not be discriminated against in hiring and promotion policies, and that businesses adopt employment quotas for women are all inadequate, since entire job classifications are unfairly undervalued. Full sexual equality cannot be achieved until "women's work" is paid as much as men's.
The solution is to have equal wages paid for jobs of comparable worth—and to interpret the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as requiring such action. As President Carter's Assistant Secretary of Labor Don Elisburg explained it, his department would insist on equal compensation for jobs "which may be different in content [but which] require the same skill, effort and responsibility.…The concept sounds so simple, one can only wonder what has taken it so long to catch hold." Thus, a company could no longer get away with paying its female receptionists less than its male janitors, unless it could demonstrate that answering phones demands less skill, effort, and responsibility than mopping floors. Women would finally achieve parity with men.
This issue of comparable worth is the culmination of the women's movement, in a dual sense. It incorporates every one of the movement's important premises, and it marks a stage beyond which there are no fundamentally new worlds left to conquer. For comparable worth is more than an intervention in the free market—it is a denial of the possibility of a free market.
Comparable-worth advocates assume that wages are set entirely at the whim of employers. If they want to pay women less than they are worth, they can and do. Like Marx's theory of exploitation, this view holds that workers—at least those who are female—are at the mercy of businessmen and need to be safeguarded by government.
Now, if it were true that wages are set at employers' discretion, why don't they pay male workers less, too? If they can arbitrarily establish low wage rates, why do they magnanimously give men more money than they have to? And if a company's secretaries are indeed being paid less than they are worth, why don't competing firms jump at the bargain and start luring them away by bidding up their wages? Since, however, employers must pay men what the market commands, and since women are not being bid away—then female workers are getting paid precisely in accordance with their objective market value, which is determined by supply and demand.
But feminists insist that a job has an inherent worth, irrespective of the market. The clinical director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project describes the comparable-worth situation as "a segregated job structure where women are paid less for work that is different from that of male employees but is of comparable value to the employer" (emphasis added). She believes, in other words, that values are intrinsic, that things have a price even if no one is willing to pay it, that there can be values without valuers. The "true" worth of a job, which goes unperceived by those who have to pay for it, must therefore be ascertained by government revelation—which the nonperceivers have to be forced to accept.
This represents a major leap from the idea of "affirmative action." The latter restricts itself to the field of ethics: it is an argument from need, an appeal to give certain classes of people special privileges because of their "disadvantaged" status. Comparable worth, however, is an argument from metaphysics, a factual assertion that women must get more pay because their jobs are intrinsically worth more. The one is a demand for charity; the other, a call for the restructuring of reality.
A free market functions only by means of voluntary exchange, which requires the free, independent judgment of every buyer and seller. But if value is intrinsic, divorced from the evaluations of those involved in a transaction, a free market is impossible. There could not be any trade, only dictated value and coerced payment. The worth not only of "women's work" but of all jobs would have to be fixed by government. The bureaucrats would be charged with the task of divining the answers to questions like: Are basketball players inherently more worthy than cancer researchers? Should network anchormen be paid more than used-car salesmen? Don't ditch-diggers display more "skill, effort, and responsibility" than punk-rock singers? The law would have to create a hierarchy of jobs—and of prices, too: Is it fair that women's shoes cost more than men's? Isn't it sexual discrimination to have to pay more for Chanel No. 5 than for English Leather? The implications of the comparable-worth theory pose a massive threat to a free-market economy.
But that is perfectly acceptable to feminists. As Susan Cowan-Scott, spokeswoman for the California State Commission on the Status of Women, responds to this objection: "If it's not too frivolous, some people saw the abolition of slavery as a challenge to the free market system, too. This is not quite on that scale, but given its built-in bias, one can question just how free that market is."
Now, it is true that even a free market will have some irrational and ignorant people who refuse to believe that women can do anything but cook dinner and change diapers. But if the market is truly free, such people do not prevail. They are virtually irrelevant. They are refuted daily through the actions of more intelligent individuals, who recognize a woman's capabilities—and who profit from them. The ignorant ones either learn from their betters or, if they stubbornly resist, self-destruct as they leave to their competitors the lucrative use of women workers, women suppliers, and women customers. Stupidity and mental lethargy are barriers faced by anything new or different. They are overcome when people realize that closed-mindedness is against their own interests. No law was needed, for example, to get blacks into major league baseball. The first black players surmounted enormous obstacles of bigotry by proving their objective value; their employers had a compelling motive to give them a chance: profit. Nor were laws required to counter the fearful hostility to the introduction of electricity or automobiles. All that women need is the political freedom to demonstrate their value—not the political power to compel recognition.
Many feminists, however, don't want the onus of freedom. They don't want to have to persuade businesses to hire women or raise their salaries. Consider their answer to the following simple question: If women's jobs are underpaid, why don't women leave for the higher-paying, "comparable" jobs? (They can hardly object that women would not be hired for "men's" jobs, since such refusal is illegal.)
"If a woman has held a job for years and years and has skills, she should be compensated for her skills and not have to leave the job," responds an ACLU attorney. "There's no reason for an experienced woman to have to leave her job," says Ann Miller, head of the committee that prepared the National Academy of Sciences report. "Many women in the labor force have considerable investments in being librarians, for example. They shouldn't have to give that up to be an apprentice plumber just to get higher pay."
Instead of urging women to pursue the better jobs—to show that they can indeed perform them—feminists encourage them to stay where they are. Women are told not to bother learning the skills that are in greater demand but to remain behind their typewriters and switchboards, to pout at the world's injustices, to send in their dues to the National Organization for Women, and to strive for bigger, "true-worth" paychecks by suing their bosses.
This can only reinforce the notion that women are generally less ambitious and less capable than men—precisely the attitude that women claim to be fighting. The irony is that many of the leaders of the women's movement hold that very view. They regard women as essentially helpless, unable to rise unless government supplies the pulling and the bootstraps. They believe that women do not seek out jobs but accept passively whatever work is thrust upon them. As stated by Frances Hutner, an economist quoted in the New York Times: "The main problem is that women are trapped in female occupational ghettos."
This is a horribly demeaning portrayal of women by their self-proclaimed defenders. It ignores the countless numbers of successful women—those who are part of the senior management of major corporations, who head their own companies, who are famous in the very competitive fields of the arts, entertainment, and sports, and who are happily pursuing careers at whatever the level of their abilities.
Feminists depict themselves as favoring the principle of merit in hiring and opposing collective judgments based on gender. They declare that they simply want to eliminate a person's sex as a factor in the workplace and to encourage employers to focus solely on the worker's individual qualifications.
The actual philosophy of most feminists, however, is precisely the opposite. Underlying their view of women as helpless is a thoroughgoing anti-merit, anti-individualistic egalitarianism. What they are after is the eradication of all practical consequences of the factual differences between the sexes. They want, for instance, to prohibit any requirements that women make larger payments into pension funds just because they live longer and collect more benefits than men do. They have fought to make pregnant women eligible for coverage under accidental disability insurance. In testimony last year before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the clinical director of ACLU's Women's Rights Project criticized a court decision that exonerated a clothing store for paying salesmen of men's clothing more than saleswomen of women's clothing: "the Third Circuit found that higher economic profitability of sales in the men's department of a clothing store was a factor other than sex which justified paying male sales clerks higher salaries than female sales clerks. [The law allows pay disparities between men and women when they are attributable to any factor besides sex.] This case appears wrongly decided under the Equal Pay Act, since the reason for the wage gap is in fact a sex-based job structure, and that is not a factor other than sex."
If feminists are concerned about justice and about reality, then these positions are senseless. But if their objective is equality—an absolute equality of condition between men and women, the obliteration of all practical differences arising from gender, the erection of a shield around women to protect them from any untoward effects of living longer, becoming pregnant, and being able to keep female customers at ease in dressing rooms—then their stand is explicable. For these are examples of sex discrimination and unequal treatment. These are all cases in which the fact of being female produces certain results from which the male is exempt.
However, these results are just and logical. Sexual discrimination, far from being some sort of guilty prejudice, is an absolute necessity. There are differences—enormous differences—between men and women. They range from the trivial to the crucial, from the field of bathroom design to the realm of romantic relationships. A man having a sexual relationship with a woman is engaging in the most profound act of sexual discrimination imaginable.
To take this further: discrimination—the act of recognizing distinctions—is implicit in the fact of being conscious and is a requirement of living. It is discrimination to prefer food to poison, America to Russia, happiness to misery. In the social area, the antithesis of discrimination is egalitarianism, which advocates the leveling of all people and the evasion of any factual differences among them. Full-fledged egalitarians insist that it is unfair, for example, that the top 20 percent of the population gets 44 percent of the income, while the bottom 20 percent receives only 4 percent. Feminists, being somewhat less ardent egalitarians, narrow the issue and argue that it is unjust for 51 percent of the nation to make less money than the other 49 percent. Both camps want the forcible redistribution of wealth; both ignore the individual in favor of the collective; both maintain that explanations of why some people earn more than others—and why they are therefore entitled to more—are discriminatory and immaterial.
The essential philosophy—and essential error—of much of the women's movement is contained in the concept of sexism. Sexism is defined by the supplement to Webster's Third New International Dictionary as "prejudice or discrimination based on sex, especially discrimination against women." The Unabridged Random House Dictionary defines it as "discrimination against women, as in restricted career choices, job opportunities, etc." Either definition renders the entire concept invalid because it encompasses all acts of differentiating between males and females. It grants the same status to the irrational as to the rational—that is, to an accountant who refuses to hire women because he believes that they cannot learn arithmetic, and to the store manager who keeps his female clerks in the women's clothing department. (This is not to imply that in the former case the government should intervene, but there exists at least a genuine injustice.)
Many feminists are wholeheartedly in favor of erasing any distinction between rational and irrational sexual discrimination. Their fundamental goal is the creation of a society that practices full sexual egalitarianism—which means that males may not acquire anything that women don't, including positions on professional football teams and membership in the Vienna Boys Choir. They are so committed to this objective that they pursue it even in seeming contradiction to their insistence on the deemphasis of gender. They support certain sex-based policies, such as affirmative action, as long as they make women "more equal."
(We should add that, unlike sexism, the concept of racism is clearly invalid. There are virtually no differences among people attributable to race. Skin color is of no concern to anyone except the manufacturers of cosmetics and suntan products. Thus, any real distinction made on the basis of race is necessarily irrational.)
The comparable-worth campaign extends the idea of egalitarianism beyond strictly sexual discrimination. It seeks to prohibit discrimination of any kind that happens to adversely affect women more than men. The fact that nurses may not make as much as truck drivers is not related to sex per se (male nurses make less, too) but to the nature of the job. It happens that nurses are mainly female and truck drivers mainly male, but their wage rates are determined by the market for their respective services.
Similarly, the fact that women in general earn less than men do is the result of choices women make; it is not the product of actual sexual discrimination. But feminists don't care about the reasons for any difference between men and women, only about eliminating it. Is a woman more likely than a man to interrupt a career because of pregnancy or to take care of children at home? Irrelevant, say feminists—if she were a man, she would be working. Does a woman lose out on a job to a man who has more experience? If she were a man, she'd have had the experience. Do women more than men want part-time jobs; do they more often than men look for jobs that they can leave and readily return to later; do they want to be nurses and secretaries and librarians? It's all sexual oppression, say feminists—men and women must be absolutely equal. (The economist Thomas Sowell has done some fascinating research in this field and found that the incomes of single women and single men are about the same. It is the women who choose to marry who make less than men.)
Comparable worth has manufactured a comprehensive sexual philosophy whose axioms are: there are no fundamental distinctions between man and woman; in observing reality, one must focus on whether some fact affects women more negatively than it does men; morally, men owe women a condition of absolute equality; and politically, government must collect that debt. Unfortunately, one could hardly be farther away from defending the competence of women and the right of women as well as men to make the free and independent judgments required by voluntary exchange in the marketplace.
Peter Schwartz is the editor and publisher of the Intellectual Activist, from which this article is reprinted by special permission. Copyright © 1981 by The Intellectual Activist, Inc. (131 5th Ave., New York, NY 10003)
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Women's Worth".