“Pay equity” – a high sounding phrase, but what does it mean? Many think it means pay equality, but it does not. Canadian law already requires equal pay for equal work. “Pay equity” goes beyond that. It means equal pay for work of equal value.

Pay equity has become the central item on the feminist agenda for 1980’s. In the U.S., the term used is “comparable worth”. Whatever the title, the idea is that employers should rate jobs for their “value,” and then ensure that “men’s” jobs and “women’s” jobs pay the same if their “value” is deemed comparable.

Quebec (and a handful of states in the U.S.) has enacted legislation requiring equal pay for work of equal value. The Ontario government has issued a Green Paper on pay equity and is currently holding public hearings on the issue. Acceptance of  “pay equity,” is not at issue any more, Queen’s Park has insisted. All it seeks through the public hearings is to gather ideas on how best to implement the policy.

In the battle for public opinion, the phrase “pay equity” was a stroke of genius. Who can be against equity, against fairness? But, of course, simply to announce that comparable worth legislation will achieve “equity” is to beg the question. A label does not make it so. The claim that it is fair to pay the same wage to people performing different jobs is highly debatable.

Many have pointed out the economic weaknesses of pay equity schemes, and this article will outline some of these. As in most social controversies, however, what’s on the surface is not the whole story. Every legislative effort comes out of a cultural and ideological context. Implementation of the law creates pressure to embrace the underlying ideology as well. For once we have accepted a given practice, we tend over time to accept the philosophy that justifies the practice.

For that reason, we need to go beyond economic issues and examine the overall political and cultural outlook for those who advocate equal value legislation. As it turns out, most of its advocates reject the traditional model of the family, in which children are cared for by their own parents, in favour of a collectivist model, in which all adults work outside the home and children are cared for in communal settings. Equal value legislation challenges us to ask whether as a society we want to adopt this sort of collectivist model of family life.

Why women are paid less

Arguments for pay equity invariably begin by citing a statistic: women earn about 60 cents for every dollar men earn.  Obvious discrimination, blatant unfairness, gross undervaluation of women’s work – so we are led to conclude.  But statistics do not tell the whole story.

Statistics do not interpret themselves.  They do not tell us why there is a wage gap between men and women.  Crusaders for women’s rights would have us attribute the difference in wages to employer discrimination.  In the “civil rights vision” (to use Thomas Sowell’s phrase), every difference between groups of people is to be put down to discrimination.

This turns out to be simplistic.  If we examine the actual work patterns of men and women, we find that nearly the entire wage gap can be explained as a result of the different ways men and women tend to relate to their work.  These differences begin to appear when people marry.

When they get married, men begin to work more hours, women begin to work fewer hours.  Women in full-time employment work an average of 36 hours per week whereas men work an average of 44 hours.  The average woman has been on her present job only half as long as the average man, and she is 11 times more apt to leave.  Moreover, the average married woman spends only 35 percent of her total potential working years in the labour force.  These things all have a dramatic effect on her earning power.

The reason women decrease their participation in the labour force upon marriage is, of course, that most married women have children.  They drop out of full-time work in order to raise their children.  Even when mothers do work, they tend to choose work which gives them more time and energy to devote to their families; either part-time work or work with few responsibilities, low physical risks, and little overtime, take-home work, or travel.

Another reason women earn less is that they tend to choose work with easy entry and exit – that is, work with a low obsolescence rate.  In some fields, just a few years’ absence renders much of one’s skill and knowledge obsolete.  In other fields, the skill in question retains its value over several years.  For example, a physicist loses about half the value of his or her knowledge from a six-year layoff, but it would take a historian more than a quarter of a century to suffer a similar loss.

When a woman re-enters the labour force after leaving it for some years, she obviously has less experience and seniority than a man of the same age who has been working all along.  This reduces the likelihood that she will be paid as much or promoted as rapidly.  Even when both husband and wife are working full-time in the same field, the woman tends to do more than half the domestic chores and to select her job and interrupt her career in response to her husband’s or her children’s needs far more than the man does.  The physical consequences of pregnancy and childbirth alone are enough to limit a woman’s economic options.

The conclusion from all this is that the wage gap between men and women can be attributed almost entirely to the differences in their actual economic behaviour – which in turn reflect differences in home responsibilities – not to employer bias or discrimination.  When women are not as willing as men to work overtime, when they need more time off for personal responsibilities, when they avoid increased work responsibilities and refuse supervisory positions – this will all show up in their pay cheques.

Women’s choices

Women’s choices to limit their job commitments are not at all surprising given the time and energy consumed by domestic and family responsibilities.  But the point is that these are largely women’s choices.  Women as a rule are willing to trade off higher paying jobs for other benefits, such as greater flexibility and part-time opportunities, that leave them time to raise their families.

The wage gap is not the result of employers who devalue women’s work.  It is instead the result of women who do value their work as mothers and homemakers, and who wish to limit their outside responsibilities for its sake.  (Many men, too, choose to sacrifice some of their career and financial ambitions in order to be more involved in their families.)

This interpretation of the wage gap can be tested by comparing the average wage of married women with the average wage of women who have never married.  As it turns out, women who remain single their entire lives and work full time earn essentially the same as men do.  Their earnings are typically about 90 percent of men’s.

Even this small remaining wage gap cannot be attributed to discrimination.  It is explained by the fact that women are not typically as highly educated as men, nor trained in the more highly paid fields, such as mathematics and engineering (though this is changing rapidly today as women seek education in non-traditional fields).  Neither are most women attracted to well-paid but physically taxing fields like construction work, lumberjacking, and coal mining.  And, finally, the rise of unwed motherhood means that even among women who never marry, the economic constraints of motherhood may still come into effect.

Feminists do acknowledge that the wage gap is the result not entirely of discrimination but also of women’s tendency to cluster in traditional female jobs.  Their explanation is that women are “herded” into these fields by stereotypical attitudes in society.

Though there is a grain of truth in this, what feminists ignore is that many women choose these jobs because of certain features that are attractive and make sense to them as mothers.  Of course, precisely because these features are attractive, there is a high demand for jobs that have them.  That is why they pay less – not because we “undervalue” women’s work.  Wages are set largely by market forces.  Low demand jobs must pay more to attract people to them; high demand jobs pay less.

If the wage gap between men and women is due to their actual economic behaviour, then obviously it will not solve anything to demand that employers “stop discrimination,” as though that were the problem.  But that is exactly what equal value legislation does.  It requires employers to pay women as if they did not limit their commitment to the work force – a rather unreasonable demand.

Pay equity amounts to asking for special privileges for women:  asking that they be treated differently than they would be if they were men and exhibited the same economic behaviour.  Even Laura Sabia, that most vehement of feminists, rejects pay equity, arguing that it is not only “protective legislation,” but “paternalistic and patronizing.”

We are “The Market”

When we say a wage set by the “market” what we actually mean is that it is set by free individuals who negotiate and agree to contracts.  Equal value legislation, on the other hand, would set up panels of “experts” to determine the “value” of each job and dictate how much it should pay.  These panels would override the millions of decisions made every day by private groups and individuals.  It is a radical attack on the free enterprise system.

Canada already has a complex of laws and regulations limiting an employer’s power to establish wage rates unilaterally.  These include both collective agreements and legislation governing hours of work, minimum wages, and fringe benefits.  If improvements are needed in these laws as they apply to women, action can be taken to amend them.  Women can work within the free market system, through unionization, collective bargaining, and so on, to achieve their goals.  We don’s need an enormous new bureaucracy of experts, especially ones who do not have to bear the consequences of the decisions they make.

It is one thing to say wages are to be set by the value of a job – it is quite another to determine what its value is.  Most comparable worth schemes rate jobs by such things as skill, education, responsibility, and risks.  The job is assigned a number in each category, then the numbers are added up to yield a total value rating.  Jobs whose value ratings are similar, it is argues, should pay the same wage.

On the surface this sounds fair and reasonable.  Actually it is a can of worms.  First, who will set up the ratings scale?  Employers actually rate jobs by many more criteria than the simple four or so usually listed in pay equity schemes (some we have mentioned: flexibility of hours, level of demand, and obsolescence rates.)

More important, how will each factor be weighted?  Employers tend to give considerable weight to hazardous working conditions, which is why jobs like truck driver and construction worker pay well.  But in the U.S., feminist-inspired equal value commissions have given little weight to hazardous working conditions, with the result that they rated secretary the same “worth” as truck driver – even though secretaries work in comfortable indoor settings while truck drivers risk getting killed on the highway.

No one agrees on the “intrinsic” worth of a job.  Rating systems are inescapably subjective, pitting one group’s idea of value against another’s.  Legislation mandating pay equity will create a bureaucratic nightmare.

In practice, governmental regulatory agencies will have the last word.  In Ontario, the government plans to monitor business’ compliance with equal value equity legislation through either the Ontario Human Rights Commission or by forming a special Pay Equity Agency.  In other words, the government, through regulatory agencies, will actually determine wages.

Pay equity is a significant step on the road to a state-controlled economy.  Now, some people may be in favour of a controlled economy.  Fine.  They are free to argue their case in the public domain.  The mischief of pay equity legislation is that it takes us along the road to a statist society under the guise of “women’s rights.” Most people who support the equal value concept think they are merely supporting fairness to women.  They don’s realize that they are also deciding to a significant extent whether Canada will have a free market or a state-controlled economy.

Individual feminists or politicians who support equal value legislation may not adhere to a full-blown socialist ideology.  Neither will pay equity in itself usher in all the consequences of a state-run economy.  But it is a significant step in that direction.  To cite Laura Sabia again, equal value legislation is “a socialist re-distribution of income….It fosters a tightly controlled and planned society in which no one can prosper.”

Feminist rage

If we succeed in showing that the wage gap is due not to discrimination but to differences in parental roles between men and women – what then?  Feminists remain unmollified.  The difference in parental roles is itself a source of resentment.

Here we hit upon the real motivation for many advocates of pay equity legislation.  At heart, they are angry that women bear greater child-bearing responsibilities than men.  Note the rage in this letter to Fortune magazine by Susan Shart of Sharp and Co. (September 6, 1982):

Criticizing women for “lower labour force participation rates than men, moving in and out of the labour force more frequently than men, and being more likely than men to be seeking part-time work only” fails to take certain fundamental facts into account.  For instance, among Fortune 500 executives, who is taking care of the children?  Whose responsibility is it to juggle career demands with childbearing and child-caring?  Did it even occur to you that the reason women seem less committed to careers is that they don’t have the luxury of a wife to take care of home and children while they blaze their career paths?

Human limitations are such that no one can successfully carry the major responsibility for raising a family and be committed to a full-time career.  Since it is women who get pregnant and breastfeed, it is usually they who bear the major responsibility for child-rearing.  We may favour measures to distribute financial and child-rearing responsibilities more evenly between husbands and wives, but we cannot change these basic biological facts.  Feminists’ real argument is not against employer discrimination, it is against biology.

Naïve confidence

Feminist rhetoric no longer calls for “equal opportunity,” meaning the right of women to work as they wish to.  Instead the phrase commonly used today is “equal participation” meaning women should actually be in the work force as much as men.  Since what restricts most women’s participation in the work force is child  care, the only way they can attain equal participation is to stop taking care of their children.

In short, women can be “equal” with men only if they use day care virtually from the time their babies are born.  This is why day care is so high on the feminists’ agenda.  What they ignore is that in the rush for new rights, we are apt to lose the old ones.  The “right” to day care collides head on with the fundamental right of parents to raise their own children within their own system of beliefs and values.

As our culture rushes headlong to embrace feminism and day care and full-time working mothers, we are in danger of losing the special parent-child bond created when families care for their own children.  In place of family bonds, we are fostering dependency on the state.  State intervention, state control, state welfare is touted as the answer to every social problem.

Equal value legislation is an example of this.  Although feminists have a profound mistrust of business (we can’t trust business to set wages), they show a touchingly naïve confidence that the state will always be fair and just.  Through pay equity, Laura Sabia complains, today’s feminists are undoing the work of an earlier generation of feminists “who struggled to free women from dependency on fathers and husbands,” and are encouraging women instead to “embrace dependency on the State.”

We cannot afford to be complacent or naïve.  As the government takes over more and more functions from the economy (like setting wages) and from the family (like caring for children), it grows correspondingly in power, power over our  lives and the lives of our children.  We will not escape the consequences ourselves just because we disagree with the principles.

Stealing their thunder

Pay equity is bad economic theory and it has dangerous political consequences.  But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done to close the wage gap between men and women.  We can steal the thunder from pay equity advocates by finding better answers than they to the problems they address.

As our culture becomes increasingly monetized, more and more women find they need to bring in an income, yet they do not want to sacrifice their family relationships.  There are a number of voluntary measures employers can take to meet this need.  For example, good maternity benefits can enable women to stay home with a newborn.  Employers can also create more and better paying part-time and home-based positions which allow women to earn an income while still making their families their primary responsibility.

Most mothers would prefer to work part time if positions were available.  Not only are positions rarely available in the numbers women would like, abut even those that do exist pay extremely poorly.  Most part-time workers are mothers who wish to limit their working hours for their family’s sake.  Businessmen who have a high view of the family should work for better pay and benefits for part-time positions.  In doing so, they lessen the financial penalty families pay for making their children their first priority.

Another option is to create home-based work for mothers.  More and more mothers are finding ways to combine parenting with work in their preferred fields by working part-time from their homes.  Women have done things as diverse as giving piano lessons, running a beauty salon in a spare room, taking in work as a legal or medical secretary, making ceramics to sell, doing free-lance writing and editing, or teaching neighbourhood classes on preventive health care.  Personal computers are making a vast new variety of jobs accessible to the home-based worker.

Mothers who work at home enjoy the best of both worlds.  They are able to work in the field they like, while choosing their own hours depending on the number and ages of their children.  They avoid most of the incidental costs of an outside job, like travel, work clothes, and so on.  They develop skills toward a fuller career in the future when their children grow older, and yet, while their children are still young, they are not compromising the quality of their parenting.

Finally, employers can demonstrate their support of families by measures to help women return to the work force after they have taken time off to raise children.  Such measures could include both job skills and retraining programmes that help minimize the effects of job obsolescence, and, perhaps most of all, taking a woman’s years of experience into account when setting a salary.

After all, a mother at home has not been doing nothing.  She has gained immense experience, responsibility, organizational skills, scheduling skills, human relations skills, etc.  Through education, we can persuade employers to take these factors into consideration when hiring women returning to the work force.

Employers who take measures to alleviate the costs of raising children are expressing in a concrete way a high view of the family by financially enabling women to stay home when their children need them most.  They are making a statement that families are important, a very much needed statement in our society.  Business and industry are not known to be supportive of family life.  In the past, men have often been expected to be “married” to their jobs, even if it meant failing at home.

Christian businessmen, in particular, should seek to alter that image.  First, because families really are important in God’s scheme of things and we have a moral responsibility to support them.  Moreover, if we don’t come up with genuine solutions to economic needs, we will be impositioned with the pseudo-solutions the government comes up with (like equal value legislation).

If we want to be taken seriously we must go beyond negative criticism of government proposals.  We must offer alternative solutions.  If we want to stand for limited government, if we want to work against the expansion of government control into every area of life, then we must show that we as Christians will rally to meet the needs of people in our culture.