Comparable Worth: Feminism Turning to Paternalism


Ms. McElroy is the editor of Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Cato Institute, 1982), which was recently republished as a university text by Holmes and Meier.

One of the most controversial feminist issues of the 1990s will be comparable worth—the idea that women should be paid the same as men in jobs of comparable value. Advocates claim that pay equity would strike at the very heart of gender discrimination. Thus, the free market could be converted into an instrument of social justice, rather than one of oppression.

More specifically, advocates claim that comparable worth would eliminate the wage gap—the wage disparity whereby women who work full time are reported to receive only 60 cents for every dollar received by men. It is with the socio-economic goal of wage justice that many recent lawsuits concerning comparable worth have been launched.

Understandably, economists and businessmen have been reluctant to transform the marketplace into a tool for social reform. In general, their criticisms of comparable worth have focused on several economic issues. They contend that the wage gap has been vastly exaggerated; comparable worth will price American products out of world markets; it will overprice the labor of women, thus creating unemployment for them; and it will penalize individual employers for following a wage structure dictated by the free market.

But lurking beneath the surface of the economic debate are more fundamental disagreements. Several assumptions underlie the comparable worth controversy.

Perhaps the most basic assumption of comparable worth is that the marketplace is incapable of providing justice. What else can explain the fact that a nurse, who preserves human life, is paid less than most garbage men? To these reformers, the market has been corrupted by centuries of discrimination, and must be corrected by legislation.

Critics of comparable worth counter that the marketplace was never meant to be an arena of social reform. It is simply a coordinating mechanism that tends to balance demand with supply. The price of labor, like the price of any other commodity, doesn’t express a moral ideal, but the preferences of buyers and sellers in the market. To these critics, the marketplace is a mirror of society. To attack it is, at best, to attack the reflection of dis- crimination—not the cause or the source. It is like breaking a looking glass became it reflects too well.

Moreover, they point to instances where the free market has worked against discrimination. In South Africa, for example, government policies impose discrimination upon the market. Nevertheless, native laborers tend to go wherever there is work. Despite government fines and penalties, employers hire cheap black labor. Government regulations cannot change the economic law of supply and demand; all they can do is make it function in back alleys and underground.

Another fundamental difference in theory soon arises. Advocates of comparable worth believe that there is an inherently just wage attached to every category of labor. This “just wage” is supposed to be independent of market forces—labor is alleged to have an economic value apart from what anyone is willing tO pay for it.

Inherent Value?

The concept of inherent value is nothing new. It dates back to the medieval guilds, which determined and enforced a “just price” for the goods they produced. More recently, Karl Marx put forth a labor theory of value, by which goods had inherent worth based on the labor required to produce them. If a worker received compensation below this just price, the discrepancy was said to be stolen money.

Unfortunately for these theories, they don’t explain the world around us. If commodities have inherent worth, how can we account for the price fluctuations we see in world markets every day? Moreover, any skill is economically worthless if someone isn’t willing tO pay for it.

But the concept of inherent worth raises at least two other sticky questions: what is the measure of worth, and who will judge it? If the marketplace is an expression of discrimination, then any fair measure of worth must be independent of it. Nevertheless, advocates of comparable worth fall back upon the market price for labor as the only real standard available. Using this shaky starting point, reformers search for an objective standard of a just wage.

Perhaps the most influential of these new standards is the one generated in 1974 by the consulting firm of Norman Willis & Associates when it performed a comparable worth study for the State of Washington. This study assigned numerical scores to all classes of labor on the basis of four factors: knowledge and skills; mental demands; accountability; and working conditions. Commit-tees then added up the numerical scores of different jobs and ranked them with respect to each other. Their findings, along with “expert” testimony, were offered to the courts as proof of the need for comparable worth legislation.

But these so-called objective results depended entirely upon who the experts were and who hired them. After all, the very attempt to measure value requires a concept of what value is, and this is subjective. The subjectivity has been highlighted by discrepancies within comparable worth studies themselves. For example, in Minnesota, a registered nurse, a chemist, and a social worker were ranked as equal. In Iowa, a nurse ranked 29 percent higher than a social worker, who ranked 11 percent higher than a chemist. This is a strange objectivity.

A New Paternalism

The controversy over comparable worth is not merely between advocates and denigrators of the free market. It is within the roots of feminism itself. Feminism of the late 1960s and early 1970s called upon women to become independent—“A woman’s body, a woman% right.” Historically, the movement recognized that government legislation had been one of the major barriers to women owning land, negotiating their own contracts . . . being economic persons in their own right. But feminism in the 1990s is calling upon the government to intervene in women’s economic negotiations for the purpose of securing justice. There is a word for such intervention: paternalism. Paternalism is a word most often used with regard to mental incompetents and children. As a feminist, I shudder to see it now applied to women.


October 1990



Contributing editor Wendy McElroy ( is an author, editor of, and Research Fellow at The Independent Institute (

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