PAY EQUITY IS UNFAIR TO WOMEN Comparable worth sounds great for women, but it would actually reduce their job opportunities.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Striking secretaries at Yale recently threatened to bring the 284-year-old university to a standstill over what they saw as discrimination in wages favoring men over women. Female workers in Washington State won a discrimination suit in a federal district court that may cost the state government nearly $1 billion in back pay and increased wages. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in the last session of Congress that required all federal jobs to be reevaluated, with the aim of raising the pay for jobs held mainly by women. All these actions were taken in the name of comparable worth, a controversial - theory that jobs have an intrinsic, measurable value that should dictate the wages paid. Sounds like a great deal for women trapped in underpaid occupations, doesn't it? In the short run it may be: women in jobs directly affected by the strikes, suits, and legislation could get higher wages. But in the long run all women will lose. If the proponents of comparable worth succeed in their quest, they will bring about the most radical alteration of our economy in the nation's history, replacing the market system with a system of administered wages. Why, then, have so many otherwise sensible people endorsed comparable worth? The answer lies partly in the ability of comparable worth advocates to cloak themselves in the rhetoric of fairness. They have even coined a phrase to describe their goal: pay equity. Mimicking the strategy of the civil rights movement, they point to the statistical disparity between the average earnings of men and women and conclude that discrimination must exist. They note the high concentration of women in certain occupations and claim job segregation. But equal pay for equal work is the law of the land, as is the guarantee that any woman has the right to any job for which she is qualified. What pay equity requires is not the fairness of equal opportunity, but something disturbingly different. In recent years the courts have held that government ought to remedy any disparities in the success achieved by various groups in society. Courts routinely find, for example, that discrimination exists when an employer's work force has fewer blacks in it than their proportion in the local labor market. With people conditioned to think this way, comparable worth advocates have only to prove that women earn less than men to convince many that discrimination is the cause. The fact that women earn 72 cents for every dollar that men earn, based on their average hourly wages, leads few people to ask why. Instead, they ask what we can do about it. The wage gap between men and women is a complex phenomenon. No single explanation suffices. Women continue to work at different jobs than men, with fully half of all women concentrated in three occupations despite strides in opening up positions that have been male enclaves. These female occupations --sales, clerical, and professional--command salaries in the market commensurate with the supply and demand of people able and willing to perform the work. Earnings clearly play only a partial role in women's decision to work in a < limited number of jobs. Of far greater importance is the need that most women have to balance the demands of a job with the responsibilities of family life. Working mothers may be willing to take less pay to get other benefits--a job that doesn't penalize the woman who intermittently interrupts her career for childbearing, or a job that provides regular working hours and proximity to a telephone in case of a child-related emergency. Comparable worth advocates want no part of such complexities. It is as if they cannot conceive that women are capable of acting in their self-interest. Instead, they depict working women as victims of conspiracy and oppression, incapable of making rational decisions about their needs and desires. The fact that women continue to seek employment primarily in low-paying, female- dominated jobs despite expanded opportunity in higher-paying, traditionally male occupations does not suggest to comparable worth advocates that the non- monetary benefits of certain jobs may have appeal. Rather, it suggests to them that women need protection from the consequences of their choices. While espousing feminist ideology, the comparable worth advocates offer up protectionist legislation to insulate women from the demands of the market. But like so much of what passes for protection, comparable worth may make victims of its intended beneficiaries. Women will ultimately be the biggest losers. IF COMPARABLE WORTH becomes the law of the land, higher salaries almost certainly will mean fewer jobs in traditionally female occupations. Employers forced to pay higher wages with no concomitant rise in productivity have to raise prices or reduce the number of jobs. What manager, faced with a decision between losing his competitive edge by hiking prices or making do with fewer secretaries, will choose the former, particularly in the age of computers and word processors? Australia has had a variation of comparable worth in both the public and private sectors since 1972. Within five years of enactment of its law, female unemployment in Australia rose, the number of women working part time increased, and the growth of female participation in the labor force slowed. What the comparable worth advocates always ignore is who will bear the costs of the pay increases their system would mandate. The costs will not be borne by some elite band of larcenous employers. They will be borne mainly by women.