Comparable Worth - Pay Equity

Equal Pay for Work of Comparable Value

Balance Scale with man and woman
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Comparable worth is shorthand for "equal pay for work of equal value" or "equal pay for work of comparable worth." The doctrine of "comparable worth" is an attempt to remedy the inequities of pay which result from a long history of sex-segregated jobs and different pay scales for "female" and "male" jobs. Market rates, in this view, reflect past discriminatory practices, and cannot be the only basis of deciding current pay equity.

Comparable worth systems seek to compensate jobs held primarily by women or men more equitably by comparing the educational and skill requirements, task activities, and responsibility in different jobs, and attempting to compensate each job in relation to such factors rather than the traditional pay history of the jobs. Thus, the job of a licensed practical nurse (held mostly by women) might compare more equally to the job of an electrician (held mostly by men), and compensation adjusted accordingly. In most actual implementations of comparable worth, the pay of the lower-paid group is adjusted upwards, and the pay of the higher-paid group is allowed to grow more slowly than it would have without the comparable worth system in place.

The Equal Pay Act and many court decisions on pay equity revolve around the requirement that the work being compared be "equal work." Thus, when mainly men or mainly women are in a job, the pay of women and men may still be distributed unfairly, if the "male" jobs were traditionally compensated more highly in part because they were held by men, and the "female" jobs were compensated less well in part because they were held by women.

By using more objective standards applied to otherwise-different jobs, the effect is usually to increase pay to the jobs where women dominate in numbers. Often, the effect is also to equalize pay across racial lines as well.

Most comparable worth agreements have been the result of labor union negotiations or other agreements and are more likely to be in the public sector than the private sector.

The approach lends itself better to large organizations, whether public or private, and has little effect on such jobs as domestic workers, where few people work in each workplace.

The union AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) has been particularly active in winning comparable worth agreements.

Opponents of comparable worth generally argue for the difficulty of judging true "worth" of a job, and for allowing the market forces to balance a variety of social values.

More on Comparable Worth:


  • Linda M. Blum. Between Feminism and Labor: The Significance of the Comparable Worth Movement. 1991.
  • Sara M. Evans, Barbara N. Nelson. Wage Justice : Comparable Worth and the Paradox of Technocratic Reform. 1989, 1991.
  • Joan Acker. Doing Comparable Worth: Gender, Class, and Pay Equity. 1989, 1991.
  • Helen Remick. Comparable Worth and Wage Discrimination. 1984, 1985.

By Jone Johnson Lewis

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Comparable Worth - Pay Equity." ThoughtCo, Oct. 31, 2016, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2016, October 31). Comparable Worth - Pay Equity. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Comparable Worth - Pay Equity." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 21, 2018).