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August 17, 2005


Totally agree.

When I saw the story posted on Kos I was forehead-slapping. These are the documents that are going to undo Roberts? The ones that prove he's opposed to massive state intervention in salary policies? Lordy, save us.

"yes I know you don't like CATO"

You then don't know me. I disagree with much of the economic policy, but I believe they arrive at it thru the strict application of admirable principles.

I agree with many parts of their agenda, or at least find it useful and stimulating.

Now Heritage, on the other hand...

And Will Wilkinson (of Cato) is trying to do hardcore political philosophy, with intellectual integrity.

Comparable worth is about indexing totally different jobs based on some governmental idea of worth and forcing companies to pay wages based on the index.

Actually, "comparable worth" is about preventing companies from continuing to pay men and women different wages because the men are doing "men's work" which is perceived as being worth more than "women's work". cite.

For example: I was a technical writer of manuals for software. The work I did was as essential to the final product as the work the software engineers did. But software engineering is overwhelmingly a male field: technical writing is more 50/50. (Likewise with software testing, also tending to be 50/50 rather than 95/5.) And pay scale reflects this. I was getting paid at the top of the scale for technical writers in one company - and I was getting paid 25% less than a software engineer who wasn't getting paid anywhere near the top of the scale for software engineers in the same company - and she wasn't happy about that, either. (We compared notes, quite illicitly, over a beer.)

I suppose, Jesurgislac, the claim would be that there is a much larger pool of competent technical writers than there are software engineers and that this larger pool drives down the salaries. I'm just trotting out the argument for inspection, not endorsing it. My own suspicion is you're right and that supply/demand curves leave out all sorts of other factors that determine wages. Or putting it another way, prejudices probably help position the demand curve--maybe there's more demand for good software engineers because they tend to be male, even though good technical writing is just as important. In the long run the free market will undoubtedly eliminate this injustice, just as slavery was peacefully eliminated in the US because it couldn't compete with free labor. Everyone knows that Microsoft reached its position of dominance because its products are the best, so if good technical writing by well-paid writers will produce better products, I'm sure things will work out without governmental interference of any sort.

Completely agreed on this--they are very different issues.

I watched dKos yesterday start to chase his tail on this, and was very relieved that the commenters managed to get him to put a sock in it.

Which is not to prejudge the larger question of whether comparable worth theory is right or wrong. But it is certainly *much* farther from the political main-stream than equal pay is, and would involve *far* more extreme disturbances to our current economic & legal system. (Equal pay should not involve any disturbances to ordinary business practice beyond, say, following the law).

I was surprised that dKos took it back but Kevin didn't.

Well put, Sebastian.

Jes, even if the labor markets for technical writers and engineers are comparable, and even if we can do an "objective assessment" of each's worth, and even if we are willing to impose wages by law, we still face a problem:

Can we say the same thing for every other job.

Comparable worth theory was a radical idea, it is a radical idea, and it should continue to be described as a radical idea.

Seb: I was going to post on this, but was putting it off until I had a chance to actually read what Roberts wrote, which I haven't yet done. So, for the record: for all I know, he could endorse the torture of tiny kittens in those memos. More to the point, he could make it clear that he's talking about some genuinely OK version of comparable worth, or something.

However, having been around and a feminist at the time this idea was out there, it was a response to the genuine problem I think Jes was alluding to: that while we were making a lot of progress in ensuring that men and women who worked at the same job were getting paid the same (not that the fact that men tended to have more seniority didn't affect things, nor that there wasn't still a lot of straightforward sexism around, but we were making progress), there were huge gulfs between what men were paid for doing "men's jobs" and what women were paid for doing "women's jobs", even when the jobs in question seemed to require the same levels of skill, effort, and so forth, and to be in some clear sense "comparable". Making sure that men and women were paid the same within a given company for a given job wasn't enough; what seemed necessary was to equalize pay between different job descriptions that "ought" to be paid the same.

I should say that I do not for a moment deny either the seriousness of the problem or the idea that either sexism or some vestige of the world in which men were supposed to be supporting families while women were "helping with the bills" (whose continuation into the present day I regard as sexism) was a major reason for these kinds of disparities.

However, the problem, of course, is: how do you decide which jobs are "comparable" and which are not? As best I could tell, "comparability" lay on a spectrum: there were cases (e.g., two kinds of technical writing jobs, each requiring similar amounts of training and expertise) in which it seemed obvious that two jobs should be paid the same, and cases in which talking about "comparability" seemed a real stretch (say, taking a semi-skilled construction job and a nurse's aide job to be comparable, on the grounds that both involve a lot of physical labor and some skill), and every point in between.

The point of this is: it is easy to find cases of two jobs that ought to be paid the same, but (I thought, and think) a lot harder to find some decent rule that would either separate out the easy cases from the rest, or allow us to adjudicate the hard cases correctly.

Comparable worth legislation, if memory serves, would have legislated some answer to this question, and given judges the power to enforce it. I always thought that if some really awesome answer to the question 'how do you tell whether two jobs are comparable or not?' could be found -- an answer that separated comparable from non-comparable (pairs of) jobs correctly, and was clear and straightforward in its application -- then I would be in favor of legislating it. (Also: if God would agree to tell us which jobs were comparable, publicly, on the basis of His omniscience. That would have been a good test.)

But if we couldn't find such a good and clear answer could be found, then I thought that this legislation was just a way of asking judges to make this decision on a more or less ad hoc basis. And I had two problems with this: first, I saw no reason to think that judges would either be good at it or come up with the kinds of answers feminists wanted; second, I thought that it would make it really, really hard for anyone with a payroll to tell whether or not they were obeying the law.

I don't know if I would call comparable worth "radical", but I certainly thought that it was not at all obvious that it was a good idea, once you got past the intention, which was good, into the way this legislation would actually work. So -- while, as I said, I haven't read what Roberts actually wrote, so for all I know he could come off as a raving lunatic on this score, the mere fact that he was against this does not seem to me to indicate that he is horribly retrograde on these issues. There really were huge problems with comparable worth legislation, problems that made me, a pretty serious feminist, not support it.

OT: Yesterday we went through a sort of indirect Atriolanche, since Atrios linked to two different stories on the kitten wars. Today, Wonkette. Tomorrow, no doubt, the world.

Comparable worth is indeed a bad idea. It amounts to having a court, or some of the "consultants" who sprung up at the time, set pay scales economy-wide. Donald Johnson correctly reminds us that market forces are not a path to economic Eden, but they do have to be weighed against alternatives.

Take Jes' example. Unlike Donald, I do endorse the argument that there are more technical writers than software engineers. And while the work is important to the product, it is not "just as important." Lots of software is perfectly useable without the manual, but the manual, no matter how well-written, is worthless without the software. A poorly written manual can be frustrating, but not nearly so much as buggy software. And most important, software functionality and reliability is certainly a much greater factor in purchase decisions than the quality of the manual.

Now, it's not my intention here to denigrate technical writers, or even to start a debate over their worth. I just want to point out that, in the one example that has been cited, there is considerable disagreement as to the worth of two jobs. That might give comparable worth advocates pause.

Unlike Bernard, I don't agree that there are more technical writers than software engineers. However, I think the demand for software engineers is higher and that tends to explain the higher salary.

Salary discussions also become difficult because there are many cases within a company where two people doing similar work may be paid wildly different salaries. This problem is less common in larger organizations that actually have policies on the matter. However, I know that there was one place I worked where I was paid 75% of what another person was being paid for the same job, even though my boss told me that I was far better at the job than she was. In that case it was because she was hired at teh height of the dot-com craze an so demanded and got an astronomical salary. (The flip side was that when the company went downwards she was among the first to be cut).

Also meant to add but forgot: a skilled person (like a technical writer) may be seen as very valuable to one organization under one set of circumstances but not to another. It may well be true that Jes was just as valuable as a software engineer where she worked but would not be considered to be as valuable elsewhere.

a skilled person (like a technical writer) may be seen as very valuable to one organization under one set of circumstances but not to another. It may well be true that Jes was just as valuable as a software engineer where she worked but would not be considered to be as valuable elsewhere.

Yes. Another reason arbitrary evaluations, by outsiders, of the "worth" of a job are not very useful.

I agree it was careless to say there are more technical writers than software engineers. What I should have said is that I think normal market forces of supply and demand will produce lower salaries, in general, for technical writers.

While comparable worth is a bad idea, it has occurred to me for a while that at some point that as a society we will be faced with coming up with a lasting solution to this question: how can we make it possible for intelligent and driven women who wish to both excel in their chosen careers *and* to bear and raise children to do so while doing both things well? Failure to come up with a workable solution to this very real question will impose substantial costs for all of us in the long run.

m. scott -- move to France. Or just about any other country where long maternity and paternity leaves are socially acceptable.

Serious query. Isn't there a pretty noticeable wage gap in Europe?

Sebastian: This tries to map that gap.

In the Netherlands we found that the average wage in 'typical women professions" like nursing went up when more men entered. The other effect of more men in the profession was that there were a lot less women in management. The Netherlands has never been wonderfull for womenslib though.

oops, I thought I changed that tag...

Sebastian, this is a PDF file with relative salaries mapped in chart form for European countries: some charts also include the US. The data is about seven years out of date. For women between 45-54, the pay gap between what a man their age could expect to be earning and what they are earning is bigger in the US than it is in any European country except the UK and Ireland. For women aged 25-34, the pay gap is bigger in the US than it is in any European country - though Austria, Germany, and Portugal are pretty close.

(One theory about the US resistence to the idea of same-sex marriage is that the idea of same-sex marriage becomes easier where men's roles and women's roles are more similiar: in countries such as the US where women are significantly poorer than men, there will be strong resistence to the idea of same-sex marriage. *g* Just a thought.)

Mr. Eiland--

"it has occurred to me for a while that at some point that as a society we will be faced with coming up with a lasting solution to this question: how can we make it possible for intelligent and driven women who wish to both excel in their chosen careers *and* to bear and raise children to do so while doing both things well? "

I agree that this is an important question, and I am glad you raised it. As it happens, I know at least one small part of the answer.

Part of the lasting solution will be having people ask this very same question, but with the word "men" in it where you have the word "women".

What I mean is, part of the solution to the official "women's problem" of combining family and careers, is changing the assumptions that make this a *woman's* problem.

Few things are more sickening to me than spectacles like the one that followed a case the other year where a woman killed her children. It was clear that the woman was not psychologically stable. But it was also clear that the father had been grossly negligent in five different ways--by neglecting the kids, neglecting his wife, by the very fact of leaving them in the care of a woman he knew was deeply unstable, and so on and so on. And then, after the children are dead, he was encouraged and applauded for parading his sense of grievance that his wife had failed to do *her* job, that *she* had been a bad parent, that *he* was a victim in all this.

This was just an exceptionally vivid example of the larger problem: we pretend that child-raising is solely women's work, and then complain that they are doing such a bad job, or lament how "difficult" it is to combine with a career. (Alright--not solely: Dobson says we have a religious duty to flash our sons, or they won't have the right sexual orientation).

So--you raise a good question. And part of the answer is raising the same question for men. (yeah. leave out the "bear" part if you like--let's not side-track too easily).

I remember sitting in a graduate course on "Compensation" and quietly taking notes on the subject of comparable worth, when suddenly the professor asked out of the blue what I thought of the approach. After gathering my wits at being jarred out of my passive mode and put into the spotlight, I said something like: "Well, either employers consciously or subconsciously [given what I know from experience now perhaps even unconsciously] perpertuate an inefficient compensation scheme that works against their own profitseeking motives by paying critical personnel less than what they will find elsewhere or the comparable worth formula applied that shows an unexplained gap in male versus female compensation is flawed in its assumptions and value assignments."

The example used earlier about technical writers and software engineers is useful. Presumptively, any redblooded, entrepreneurial American, seeing an opportunity to gain a strategic advantage (and the profit to be accrued from that) will 'put his money where his mouth is' and start a competitor across the street where the tech writers get paid much more (thus attracting the best) while paying the engineers less (thus accepting an adequate rather than stellular mix). It is after all a free country. If this strategic advantage claims a profitable segment of the industry, the entrepreneur will claim his riches and others in the industry will move in his direction to capture any excess profit. That comparable worth based schemes do not seem to be being implemented speaks volumes as the "worth" of the approach.

I suspect that the differential is pay between "comparable" jobs reflects the unmeasured inventory of personnel who could, for the right price, be either lured from other jobs or from no job at all (a category of non-employment overwhelming held by women). If one for example was given the task of finding an extra 5,000 software engineers for the industry or an extra 5,000 technical writers, I suspect it would be easier to lure or train new tech writers.

Where comp-worth IS useful is in the insight it gives on how to expand the workpools for employers for 'tight' positions. I don't know exactly why women don't become tool-and-die makers for example but the collective employers of such makers facing a tight job market might find it more economical to jointly pursue a longterm, outreach program to get women interested or linked up into programs that can provide skills as a means of expanding supply and lowering overall costs.

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