Comparable Worth: Definition, Doctrine & Legislation

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

Should men and women be paid the same for doing the same job? The answer to this question lies in comparable worth. In this lesson, you will learn about this concept, related legislation, and implications. Take a short quiz at the end.

Same Work, Same Pay

Many people consider talking about their wages to be workplace faux pas. But if wages were openly discussed, people might find that there are quite a few disparities. There are especially inconsistencies between men and women. It is believed that men and women who perform similar work should be paid the same, an economic concept known as comparable worth, also known as sex equity or pay equity. It revolves around eradicating income inequality and closing the wage gap. In this lesson, you will learn the definition and doctrine of comparable worth as well as the various laws to which it's related. You will also explore the implications of this notion via key questions.

Further Exploring Comparable Worth

Mainstream since the 1960s, the concept of comparable worth holds that men and women deserve equal pay for work that requires similar responsibilities, training, and effort. The most important word here is concept; comparable worth is neither a law nor a policy.

It might seem that men and women receiving the same pay should be a given that happens without question. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. There exists a variable wage gap between men and women and, thus, income inequality between men and women.

Keep in mind that comparable worth only applies to comparable professions. A grocery clerk makes less than a NASA engineer due to the training, requirements, and job rigor. A chemist will earn more than a custodian for the same reasons. What comparable worth says is that professionally equal male and female physicists should earn the same wage; the same goes for a male and female grocery clerk. Comparable worth seeks to ensure that consistency.

This janitor and engineer are paid differently because of their jobs, not their gender.

Legislative Basis

Comparable worth wasn't a big concept until the 1960s. The women's liberation movement brought it to the front burner. The movement sought to end the wage gap and income inequality between men and women, using comparable worth as a concept to justify such demands.


A couple of key legislative pieces helped to push this movement's goals. In 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act. This anti-discrimination law made it illegal to pay different wages to women and men who worked in the same place doing the same work. It clarified and considered five work-related themes:

  • Skill: Training or education required for the job.
  • Effort: The amount of rigor of the job in terms of physical or mental demands.
  • Responsibility: How much a worker was in charge of or held accountable for in their role.
  • Working Conditions: Physical workspace and any relevant hazards where work is performed.
  • Establishment: Equality only applies to preventing discrimination within an actual place of business (i.e. a company's facilities themselves).

President John F. Kennedy signs the Equal Pay Act into law.
Signing the bill

The next year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Article 7 of the piece made it illegal to discriminate due to gender (among other criteria such as race) with respect to employment. This included hiring, training, promotions, working assignments, and evaluations. Combined with the comparable worth provisions of the Equal Pay Act, huge strides were being made to improve income equality and close the wage gap.

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