© National Committee
on Pay Equity
Pay Equity

Handling the Arguments Against Pay Equity

Following are common claims that have been used
in opposition to the concept of pay equity
and responses to those arguments.

Compiled by the National Committee on Pay Equity




The wage gap is a myth. Using the 77¢ figure is misleading because it does not take into account human capital differences such as education and experience.

  The Census Bureau reports that the median annual earnings of year-round, full-time working women are 77% of the median annual earnings of year-round, full-time, working men. For women of color, the median earnings numbers are more severe. African American women earn 68% of every dollar earned by white men, and Latinas earn 57%.

Economists do disagree about the extent to which the wage gap reflects labor market discrimination or other human capital factors such as differences among workers in education and experience. Recent studies show that between one-quarter and one-half of the gender wage gap remains unexplained even after taking such human capital differences into account.

The Census Bureau's annual earnings ratios are an important indicator for tracking trends over time. When the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, women earned 59 cents on the dollar compared to men. In 2004, that figure was 77¢ on the dollar. The wage gap has changed at a rate of less than a half a penny per year.

While earnings statistics don't tell the whole story, they are important indicators of the progress we have made in wage parity and in economic opportunity -- such as ensuring there are fair opportunities to earn more. Economists do agree that discrimination can play a part in determining differences in experience, job tenure, and other "explainable" factors.


When looking at hourly earnings, women make 83% of men's earnings, even before accounting for differences in education, experience, and occupation.

Response:   It is important to keep in mind that hourly earnings are also subject to critique. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports hourly earnings for those occupations in which people earn an hourly wage (only about 72 million workers, or roughly half of the labor force). Thus, the figure is not representative of all workers.
  Some research finds that in a few specific instances, women and men are paid the same for equal jobs. For example, women age 35-44 with psychology degrees working as social scientists earn 101 percent as much as their male equivalents, and women in this age group with engineering degrees working as engineers earn 95% as much as their male counterparts.
  These examples leave out the majority of workers. While it is encouraging to find that small numbers of women have been successful in overcoming discrimination, these studies do not reflect the opportunities that most women have. Should women simply avoid growing any older than age 44? Should we all enter the psychology and engineering fields?

While wage statistics tell only part of the story, it is important to get a large cross section of statistics when evaluating this issue. There are plenty of salary surveys that control for age, experience, time in the workforce, and other factors and still find unexplained wage gaps. For example, The Industry Standard recently reported the results of the Internet Workforce Compensation Study 2000, in which they found a gap even when education, position, and industry sector are factored in.

  The wage gap is partially explained by women leaving the workforce to rear small children or to care for other family members. In that sense, they do not invest as much in their human capital as men do, so they are less valuable to a company.
  It is true that some women choose to take time out of the workforce to care for their loved ones. We believe that this is a legitimate choice for women and men to make. However, the majority of women do not make this choice: Department of Labor statistics show that 65% of women with children under age six (10,375,000) are in the labor force and more than half of them work full-time.

In addition, as Ann Crittenden points out in The Price of Motherhood, "[m]others' choices are not made in a vacuum. They are made in a world that women never made, according to rules they didn't write." If a wife earns less than her husband, it may make sense for her to be the one to leave the workforce. In addition, the workforce is still not a level playing field for women. The fact that women still face barriers to equal pay and advancement may also cause women to be more open to the option of staying home. Additionally, society still has not made it fully acceptable for men to take on the role of the "stay-at-home-Dad," and men may not be willing to risk stalling their careers by staying home.

  The reason women are paid less is because they choose to go into low-paying occupations that provide greater flexibility.
  Research shows that female-dominated occupations do not offer more flexibility than other jobs. The reason some women are paid less is because the jobs filled by women in a company are not always valued in the same way that men's jobs are. Studies have shown that the more women and people of color fill an occupation, the less it pays. Using a point factor job evaluation system, the state of Minnesota found that the "women's jobs" paid 20 percent less on average than male-dominated jobs, even when their jobs scored equally on the job evaluation system. (Pay equity adjustments were phased in over four years at a cost of 3.7 percent of overall payroll.)
  Many women, planning to interrupt their careers at some point in the future to have children, choose occupations where job flexibility is high, salaries are low, and job skills deteriorate at a slower rate than others.
  We believe the idea that women choose jobs in which skills deteriorate at a slower rate (and thus means they can leave the workforce and come back without significant retraining) is an esoteric argument that has little to do with the every day decisions of average workers. According to the Department of Labor, the ten leading occupations for Black and Hispanic women include the jobs of cashiers, janitors, nursing aides, and maids. There is no data to support the argument that women are choosing these low-paying jobs based on the fact that they have a slower rate of skill deterioration.
  When looking at the history of those earning professional school degrees, very few of the graduates of the 1950s and 1960s, who today would be at the pinnacles of their professions, were women. Women simply have not been in the pipeline long enough to have achieved parity with men.
  Saying that women have not been in the pipeline long enough does not tell the whole story. Even when studies control for the pipeline factor, wage disparities still exist.

Moreover, because of blatant discrimination before (and to some degree, after) the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women and minorities had a hard time applying for many jobs. Some careers simply were not open to women and minorities. Thus, if you use the argument that women have not been in the pipeline long enough, you must acknowledge that the blatantly discriminatory practices of the past have played a part in determining that. So discrimination of the past still affects the current wages of women and people of color.

Claim:   The market will correct wage discrimination on its own. If pay is too low, employers won't be able to hire anyone, and wages will naturally rise.
Response:   The market can play a role in reducing wage discrimination, but it will not provide a complete solution. The market has shortcomings, too. First, the market itself is not free from sex or race bias. If we had relied on market forces, for example, we would never have needed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Second, if a company or a state is the largest employer, that employer determines the market and thus the wages.

Third, we can examine the case of child care workers. While there is high demand for child care workers, the median earnings are drastically low -- only $322 per week according to the Department of Labor. Because the people who need child care cannot afford to pay more for it, the market forces do not work in this instance.

Some economists believe that, while market competition deters discrimination, employers with considerable market power are insulated from the negative effects of discriminating. Even Alan Greenspan has said that businesses too often practice racial and other forms of discrimination, which lowers productivity.

Claim:   If women were only paid 77¢ on the dollar, then a firm could fire all its men, replace them with women, and have a cost advantage over rivals.
Response:   That would be illegal under the Equal Pay Act.

Even though the labor of women and minorities can be bought at a lower cost, companies are not always driven by the bottom line. We cannot ignore societal factors that influence hiring and promotion decisions and workplace behavior. For example, as author Deborah Swiss uncovers in her book The Male Mind At Work, which details 54 interviews with male CEOs and executives, many men say the old-boys network is still a very real part of the American workplace. The market does not always overcome the fact that, because of personal comfort levels, people may help those who are most like themselves. Some will pay more for the privilege to discriminate.

Claim:   Pay equity advocates promote a "victim" mentality among women. They ignore all of the progress that has been made.
Response:   It is true that women and people of color have made important strides over the past three decades. Indeed, the strengths, abilities, and convictions of women have opened the doors of opportunity, and their achievements should be recognized. However, there are still barriers preventing some workers from achieving full equality under the law. Pay equity advocates will not be satisfied until all workers are treated equally and all of our nation's resources are utilized.

Claim:   Comparable worth is dependent on tying compensation to job evaluation systems, which can be highly subjective.
Response:   Job evaluations can be subjective, although many employers already use some kind of job evaluation system to weigh the value of different jobs based on objective criteria. Job evaluation ratings can be one of several criteria used for wage-setting. On the other hand, if a job evaluation is not used as one of the determinants for pay-setting, what tools should employers use that are not subjective?
Claim:   Different jobs dominated by women and men cannot be compared. It's like comparing apples and oranges.
Response:   Apples and oranges can be compared. Certain attributes of each are comparable: calories and vitamins, for example. Jobs can also be compared based on their overall skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions. In fact, many employers do just that - job evaluations have been a common management tool for more than 100 years.

In Los Angeles, for example, social workers were found to be comparable to probation officers in skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions. Even so, social workers were paid less. In a Portland pay equity study, the job of typist was found to be equivalent to water meter readers.

Claim:   Comparable worth is highly subjective. When certain states began to consider implementing pay equity for their public workforces, the same occupations scored differently in separate state job evaluations.
Response:   Shouldn't states be able to design pay systems that take into account the factors they consider most relevant? And besides, how do we know that the same job titles in different states involve the same amount of work? Under pay equity, individual employers (including state employers) determine the worth of each job.
Claim:   Implementing pay equity is costly for employers and will lead to job loss - especially among women. For example, following the introduction of a comparable worth system in Minnesota, unemployment in that state rose at a faster rate for women than for men.
Response:   In Minnesota, the state legislature passed the State Government Pay Equity Act in 1982, which began the implementation of pay equity for state workers. The simple fact is that the total number of state employees increased from 32,383 in January 1982 to 35,643 in January of 1986. Women's representation in state employment increased from 42% of employees in 1982 to 44% in 1986. Job loss has never been verified by Minnesota state officials.

Thousands of Minnesota women saw their earnings rise significantly above the poverty level. "In 1983, the base salary for a Clerk I working for the state of Minnesota was $11,922, only 17% above the poverty line of $10,178. Over the next four years, without the pay equity act, the base salary would have risen to $13,675, 22% above the then-current poverty line. However, with pay equity, that Clerk I took home $15,931, 42% above the poverty line." (Wage Justice, Sara Evans and Barbara Nelson, University of Chicago Press, 1989.)

Furthermore, those economists who claim that wage adjustments in Minnesota had a negative effect on employment in predominantly female jobs also acknowledge the unlikelihood that anyone actually lost her job as a result of pay equity adjustments. Indeed, one such economist, Mark Killingsworth, merely projects that employment would have been higher in the absence of the adjustments. But we cannot reject pay equity based on one economist's projection.

Claim:   Isn't it reasonable for some men to be paid more because they have dangerous jobs or jobs that demand physical strength?
Response:   Sometimes. Working conditions and physical effort are two of the factors that are commonly looked at in a pay equity study. Other factors include (but are not limited to) skill and level of responsibility. All of these factors are important and should be reflected in the pay for a job.

With regard to physical strength and level of danger, we must acknowledge that women also work in hazardous and physically demanding jobs. Nursing exposes women to a variety of infectious diseases and requires lifting patients. For example, the Washington Post found that a nursing aide's risk of serious injury is higher than that of a coal minor or of steel mill workers (The Hazards of Elder Care October 31, 1999). Lifting and moving patients can lead to back injuries, and workplace assaults by patients are a major risk. Of all serious workplace assaults in private industry in 1997, nursing aides suffered 27 percent of the attacks, compared with seven percent for security guards.

Claim:   If women have been subjected to wage discrimination, they can sue for remedies under the Equal Pay Act or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Response:   This claim implies that taking your employer to court to resolve pay differences is as easy as taking an antihistamine to relieve the symptoms of a common cold. However, taking an employer to court is too difficult for most workers.

Plaintiffs are retaliated against or fired for pursuing fair pay, and often their reputations are ruined as a company seeks to defend itself against allegations of wrongdoing. Monetary awards in equal pay cases can be severely limited, making it impractical to sue and hard to find an attorney on a contingency basis. Thus, although the current laws are very important, they still leave workers with far less power than large companies in a lawsuit. As a result, many workers do not sue.

Other workers suspect that they are being underpaid, but don't know for sure. Because the laws are complaint-driven, and employers largely keep the salary information needed to file a complaint secret, working people can be left without many options.

Claim:   If women are underpaid, they are free to find another job.
Response:   For several reasons, this argument is too simplistic. Aside from the fact that it condones discrimination, we must acknowledge that not everyone has the ability to leave her job. In rural areas, for example, workers simply do not have as much choice.

What's more, unless the laws are changed to help women and people of color find out when they are being shortchanged, how are they to know they will be paid fairly at a new job? To some extent, the market works as a whole. If the jobs dominated by women and people of color pay less, then simply changing jobs may not correct the problems.

Claim:   If stronger fair pay legislation is enacted, our courts will be saddled with frivolous lawsuits.
Response:   In the 1960s, this argument was used to oppose the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In the 1980s, it resurfaced again to fight the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result of these two historic pieces of legislation, our workforce is more diverse, our economy is stronger, and more citizens are able to achieve the American Dream.

If workers have assurances that the pay system is fair, they will not need to seek remedies under the law. Further, even if laws making it easier to sue were enacted, taking an employer to court would still be a long and arduous process - one that most workers would be hesitant to undertake.

Claim:   Pay equity legislation will result in government wage setting.
Response:   This is the most common scare tactic used by opponents of stronger pay laws. Under all bills proposed, employers set wages, as they should. Enforcement of the laws would be complaint-driven, as with current equal pay laws. That means that an individual who believed she or he had been discriminated against would first file a complaint. Only after an investigation and a finding of discrimination could an agency or court order a remedy - and then only to correct discrimination, not to engage in generalized wage setting for companies.

With pay equity, employers set wages individually. The legislation does not apply to industry wages. It requires only that a legitimate and non-discriminatory system be used to set wages.

    Sources: NCPE research; AFSCME - We're Worth It! A Guide to Understanding and Implementing Pay Equity; AFL-CIO Working Women's Department - The Case for Equal Pay: Responding to Common Arguments Against Equal Pay; office of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Institute for Women's Policy Research.

April 2006