Last November, a federal judge in Tacoma, Washington, made national news by ruling that the state had discriminated against women. Sex discrimination lawsuits are hardly new to American life, but the issue in Washington was not whether the state was willing to hire women, or whether it offered equal pay for equal work. Rather, it was whether the 15,000 state workers holding traditionally female jobs—nurses and secretaries, for example—should be paid the same as those holding “comparable” male-dominated jobs in different trades, like plumbing or carpentry. In deciding against the state of Washington, Judge Jack Tanner declared that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act “was designed to bar not only overt employment discrimination, but also practices that are fair in form but discriminatory in operation,” among which he counted the state’s failure to grant equal pay for work of comparable worth. Tanner found the state guilty of “pervasive and intentional” discrimination, and promptly awarded the plaintiffs a projected $1 billion in back pay and wages.

No one missed the opportunity to hail the ruling as a major turning point in the battle against sexism. “The state of Washington was the defendant in this case,” said a local spokesman for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the union that brought the suit, “but all of society was on trial. This ruling gives us great cause for hope, because it will provide a model for other suits across the country.” Dan Evans, the Republican ex-governor recently elected to fill Henry Jackson’s Senate seat, proposed that Congress create a commission to “study how the federal government . . . can root out gender bias” within its own workforce. And Gary Hart, who along with Walter Mondale, John Glenn, and Alan Cranston has jumped on the comparable worth bandwagon, was so overcome with enthusiasm that he hopped a plane to Seattle to hold a press conference where he called Tanner’s decision “a national example of how women’s organizations and unions can use existing laws to destroy wage discrimination.”

Support for the notion of comparable worth has come to be expected of anyone who claims to care about the equality of women in our society. Proponents of the doctrine rightly argue that “equal pay for equal work” is only a partial solution to the problem women face in the workforce. The average working woman earns only 62 cents for every dollar a man earns. Women’s groups correctly point out that the real problem isn’t that female professionals are paid less than their male counterparts; if half of all lawyers were women who received the same salaries as their male colleagues, a wide income gap would still exist. The real problem, they say, is that secretaries and other women who toil in traditionally “female occupations” are making considerably less than men who possess the same, or lower, levels of skill, intelligence, and responsibility.

The egalitarian appeal of the comparable worth principle is obvious: why shouldn’t a female secretary with an M.A. in English literature and responsibility for managing the office’s accounts get paid the same as a Teamsters truck driver who hauls frozen chickens? But when it comes to larger problems of inequality faced by both women and society at large, comparable worth is a principle that will ultimately prove not merely inadequate, but destructive. Its greatest asset is that it affords politicians a way to demonstrate their solidarity in the battle for sexual equality, while leaving all the necessary little details that the “comparable worth” standard implies—like deciding who is worth what, and exactly how one goes about comparing the job of a deputy assistant to the administrator to that of a cleaning woman—to somebody else. And it isn’t hard to figure out who that “someone else” is going to be. When Tanner’s decision was handed down, lawyers and consultants everywhere no doubt experienced something akin to the thrill felt by Cortez when he first gazed upon the shimmering Aztec temples of Tenochtitlan.

Take a Number, Please

The state of Washington first began to toy with the idea of comparable worth back in 1973, when then-Governor Dan Evans hired the Seattle consulting firm of Norman D. Willis & Associates to figure out whether the state was paying women as much as it was paying men at “a comparable level” of skill and responsibility. The study found a 20 percent wage gap. For example, laundry workers, who were mostly women, were estimated to be worth the same as low-level truck drivers, who were mostly men, but the laundry workers were making 41 percent less than the truck drivers.

Perhaps you’re wondering how to figure out how much a laundry worker is worth. After all, such questions have perplexed philosophers and theologians for centuries. (They have even been known to give personal-injury lawyers some difficulty.) The answer is to develop “point-factor job evaluation systems” to do the job for you.

Each system works on a slightly different conception of “worth,” of course, but all share a cheerfully mathematical view of qualities that you would think would be hard to quantify. Let’s take a closer look at the Willis scale, which Judge Tanner relied on in making his decision. It assumes that the worth of any job, from circus clown to key-punch operator, varies in relation to the “knowledge and skills,” “mental demands,” “accountability,” and “working conditions” it entails. Each of these components is further broken down into two or three subcomponents, and points are awarded on the basis of each one. Under “accountability,” for instance, you can win points for your “freedom to take action” as well as for the nature and size of your “impact.” Admittedly, the guidelines the instruction manual for the system offers are somewhat informal; for example, on “impact,” the consultants instruct, “The simplest way to look at Size is to say the job most clearly impacts on something BIG, or on something LITTLE, or on something IN-BETWEEN.”

The “knowledge and skills” component breaks down into “managerial,” “interpersonal,” and “technical” dimensions, each of which carries its own rating. To top out on the “managerial” scale, you have to manage “subfunctions that have significantly different natures, or where the end results of the subordinate subfunctions tend to be conflicting or competitive with each other and require special harmonizing.” Got that? In English, “you have to know how to do different things and how to play your assistants against one another.” There are two kinds of “mental demands”—”judgment” and “problem solving”— and three kinds of “working conditions”— “uncomfortable,” “strenuous,” and “hazardous.”

To calculate all these factors, Willis assembled a group of people from within the state civil service. These civil servants reviewed job descriptions, interviewed their fellow workers and then, after much solemn mutual consultation, assigned each job a score. Thus a clerk-typist became a “152,” or, to be more precise, a “C1N 106 C2-f 23 C1N 23 L1A 0.” Broken down, this meant a clerk-typist scored 106 on “knowledge and skills,” 23 on “mental demands,” 23 on “accountability,” and 0 on “working conditions.” (A score of 0 on “working conditions” is the Willis method’s understated way of saying either that the employee has nothing to complain about or that he or she is working in embarrassingly plush surroundings. Because there are no negative points on the Willis scale, access to excessive perks does not lower anybody’s score.) Broken down still further, the clerk-typist rating on “knowledge and skills” is level C on a “technical” scale from A to G, level 1 on a “managerial skills” scale of one to three, and level N on an “interpersonal skills” scale that is too complicated to explain without the aid of an astrolabe and a mood ring.

With the help of Willis’s team of metaphysicians, Washington state calculated the worth of every civil service job category on the payroll. These were unveiled in 1974, revealing the awkward 20 percent gap between what women were earning and what their male “comparability” counterparts were earning. True to a long-standing tradition of how to respond to consultants bearing bad tidings, Evans ordered a second, more detailed Willis study. This study, published in 1976, estimated that the wage gap between “comparable” men and women could be closed by paying the women $38 million more a year. (What? Lower the wages for the men instead, you say? You must be kidding.) The $38 million gap struck the legislature as a problem warranting still further study. By July 1982 AFSCME had run out of patience, and filed suit.

The decision that resulted will be a serious blow to the finances of Washington state. The state will now have to cough up not $38 million, as the second Willis study showed, but an estimated $1 billion over the next 18 months. When Winn Newman, the lawyer who argued AFSCME’s case, was asked about this he answered, “Congress didn’t put a price tag on ending discrimination when it passed the Civil Rights Act. It didn’t say to employers, ‘Stop underpaying women and minorities when you think it’s convenient.’ The only ones saying we can’t afford to stop discrimination are bigots—bigots and people with an interest in perpetuating it.”

Surprisingly, the decision was disowned by none other than Norman Willis, who, despite the hubris of his worth-measuring enterprise, recoils at the thought that his or anybody else’s scorecard should become law. Even some of those who support the decision seem hard-pressed to find a sound legal basis for Tanner’s reasoning. When I asked Gary Hart about this, for example, he said, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for legislators to run around commenting on judicial rulings,” even though that’s exactly what he had come to Seattle to do.

Move Over, Max Plank

Hart and Newman have their hearts in the right place; we do want to pay people what they deserve, rather than what society’s petty prejudices dictate. But if the courts are going to define “discrimination” so broadly that it applies to people who do different things and earn different salaries, they can’t just go around measuring it on any scale they like—there will have to be state and federal laws saying there shall always be, say, three kinds of occupational adversity, as opposed to two or 20, and just two kinds of mental demands. Otherwise, employers will start defining worth any way they please. Truck drivers could end up being paid entirely on the basis of their familiarity with Finnegan’s Wake.

Getting the nation to unite behind the Willis or the Hay or the Jones system of worth detection will be tricky, for we all have direct, and conflicting, interests in how the scale is calibrated. A ditchdigger could argue that the Willis system favors mental over physical exertion, a typist that it doesn’t adequately register boredom. And anyone could claim, rightfully, that it gives more weight to meaningless job requirements—for instance, why should a probation officer need a master’s degree—than it does to individual initiative and resourcefulness.

But even if we agree on a scale, we’ll have to accept the possibility that it will produce widely different results when applied in different environments. Unless we take the next step, which is to treat the whole economy as a single firm and determine the proper salary for every position in it, we’ll have no way of knowing that secretaries are keeping up with each other, let alone staying ahead of the nation’s janitors.

Imagine the nightmarish society that might result. A waitress down at Uncle Bob’s House of Ribs might sue her boss because her sister-in-law was getting twice as much (and better tips) waiting tables at the diner across the street. Executives would knock back martinis after coming home on the five-forty-eight and torment themselves about their prospects for ever mak- ing F1Y 380 E4-k 122 E1D 160 L1A 0. Children would have new ways to taunt one another in the sandbox:

“My daddy’s a 634!”

“Oh yeah? Well, my daddy’s a 723, and he says if he can harmonize subordinate subfunctions three more times this week we can go to Bermuda!”

AFSCME isn’t proposing anything as ambitious as a planned economy, of course; it is simply claiming that individual employers have an obligation to rise above the sexism inherent in the marketplace. Once employers have done away with the wage gap between men’s and women’s professions, a spokesman for the union says, the problem will have been solved and everything will return to normal.

But will it? Many civil servants in Washington state who hold jobs as “worthy” as other, higher paying jobs are men. But unless they can prove that they’re being discriminated against for performing “women’s work”—legally defined as any job where women comprise more than 70 percent of the workforce—they won’t get the raise that the nurses and the secretaries will get. It isn’t hard to imagine the next step: a lawsuit by the men, arguing that they deserve “comparable worth” raises, too.

Then there are the inevitable adjustments that will have to be made to keep the worth scale up-to-date. Maintaining a standard as vague as “worth” could make quantum mechanics look simple. It’s fairly easy for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to spot a disparity in the wages an employer pays men and women to perform “equal work”; all it takes is a glance at the payroll. But checking out a comparable-worth complaint would be quite another matter. In order to determine whether a Lockheed audit-machine operator II was legally entitled to the same pay as a senior stem-dryer maintainer, the EEOC would have to haul in a committee to perform a company-wide worth analysis.

The courts, too, would have to evaluate the working of an entire industry every time they heard a discrimination suit. Major civil rights battles would turn on such questions as whether error-free typing is a greater corporate asset than leak-free plumbing, or whether sitting at a VDT places greater strain on Betty’s eyes than pipefitting places on Jack’s back. And does Doris, the floor manager at Sears, “most clearly impact on something IN-BETWEEN” as opposed to “something LITTLE”?

If the administrative and judicial aspects of comparable worth are messy, the economics could be even messier. In the marketplace, people are paid in part according to the availability of labor. At Weyerhaeuser, for example, where a Willis comparable worth survey rated the job of personnel manager at 916 and that of pulp mill superintendent at 760, pulp mill superintendents make more money than personnel managers— because good ones are harder to find. Under a comparable worth standard, Weyerhaeuser could end up with two choices: pay the pulp mill superintendents less, thereby making good ones even harder to find, or give the desk-bound manager a big raise.

Comparable worth also creates problems for labor-management relations. Subjected to the worth standard, many existing collective-bargaining agreements could be shown to have disparate impacts on men and women in different jobs. And if the unions that negotiated those agreements didn’t move fast enough to pin the blame on the employers, as AFSCME did in its claim against Washington state, they could face massive lawsuits from their own members. (In fact, the AFSCME local that brought the suit against Washington pays its own employees not on the basis of comparable worth but by the same allegedly sexist pay scales used by the state.)

Worthier Than Thou

Advocates of the worth standard insist that this is all beside the point; as Newman says, you can’t put a price tag on discrimination. But if anyone’s putting a price tag on justice, it’s the worth proponents themselves. Just take a look at the Willis scale. A beginning licensed practical nurse scores 158 comparable worth points, while an “Information Specialist III”—an experienced PR flack—scores 324. Or look at a janitor, who scores 101, while an “Advisory Sanitarian II”—someone who doesn’t actually clean anything himself, but makes sure local hospitals and nursing homes do—scores 395. Why on earth should our society value people who issue press releases or fill out reports all day long more than people who save lives and do the dirty work?

This is the most pernicious aspect of comparable worth—it would do nothing to endanger the larger inefficiencies and inequalities that are built into the present hierarchy. In fact, it would solidify them by giving them the force of law. Whereas today we overpay lawyers regardless of their need, skill, and general value to society, because we are irrationally adversarial, credential-loving snobs who hope someday to behave more sensibly, in a world governed by comparable worth we would do so because it is the law. The purpose of comparable worth is not to balance the earnings of lawyers and secretaries who make equal contributions to the common good, but to make fine distinctions about the “worth” of jobs already accorded roughly the same status within society.

The comparable worth scale reflects the same credentialism that corrupts the society it is designed to mirror. Why is an advisory sanitarian any worthier than a janitor? Because it is suggested that advisory sanitarians have “an M.A. in public health, environmental health, or a closely allied field,” and you must be registered as a sanitarian—an affiliation whose only advantage might be that its monthly four-color newsletter, Sanitarian Today, advertises cheap charters to Luxembourg. AFSCME doesn’t have any problem with unequal arrangements that result from society’s obsession with credentialism; to the contrary, one official of the union was quoted a couple of years ago as complaining, “When a person whose job requires a college education makes less than what is basically a common laborer, there’s something wrong.” Advocates of comparable worth don’t want to achieve equality or a system of rewards based on true merit. They want a merit-blind system of inequality.

Willis insists that his scale doesn’t pretend to measure a person’s contribution to the social good. Instead, it is a “bias-free instrument.” But what does this bias-free instrument measure? It measures the biases of society. That’s’ the problem. When a lawyer calls in his secretary to ask her to type up a brief on comparable worth, he isn’t demonstrating to her his willingness to flatten the income curve; he’s demonstrating to her the inevitability of her inferior status. Even if she’s the best secretary in the world, and he the worst lawyer, comparable worth dictates that the lawyer will always be worth more than the secretary.

There are far better ways to fight sexual discrimination in the workplace. Where sexism obviously exists in hiring decisions, an anti-discrimination lawsuit is just one way to apply pressure. Another is to combat the deep-seated cultural prejudices that funnel women into jobs like that of secretary and nurse to begin with. And a final remedy is to fight the rigid rules that exist to keep women—and men—who occupy the lower status rungs in their place. Nurses and midwives, for instance, should have more freedom to perform essential medical services. And legal secretaries ought to have the authority to prepare wills and other documents that they now draw up for their bosses.

Obviously, the problem of sexual discrimination runs deep in our society. At least for a while, there will still be bosses who look upon their underpaid—and more intelligent—secretaries with condescension and perhaps lust. But comparable worth, appealing as the idea might sound, won’t help end that inequality. Instead, it will enshrine it, while fine-tuning lesser inequalities through the use of questionably “scientific” means to measure what is ultimately unmeasurable.