The Thinking 

Why Equal Pay for Equal Work is Right

October 15, 2012



I recently watched a TV show (I suppose you would call it a sitcom) produced c. 1971 or ’72. Office setting. A female employee discovers she is being paid $200 a month less than the man who had the job before her. Confronting her boss, she is told this is naturally because he had a family to support. Outrage. Fast forward to the present. Within a few days of this I had a daughter tell me of a similar situation involving her employment in the past month. My instinct tells me you would find offering the man more who has a family to support justified. (Forgive me if I’m wrong.) MY instinct tells me it is justified. But for the life of me I can’t make a case for it in my head. IS it justified? I have the greatest respect not only for your judgement but your ability to clearly define principles. Thank you.

 Laura writes:

I am surprised that an employer admitted to your daughter that he was paying her less because she was female and had no family to support. That’s very stupid. He could be sued for his honesty.

Actually, in my opinion, it is not right to pay a woman less than a man if they are both doing the same work as well and, here is a key point, if the employer has good reason to believe the woman will stay on without interruption. (Was that Mary Tyler Moore? Well, clearly Mary was going to be there forever.) Government should not oversee compensation issues such as this, but a conscientious employer should pay a woman the same, all things being equal.

Women do have a higher attrition rate in some fields, however, and the reason why an employer may wish to pay a man more may be because he wants to retain him over the long term, and does not expect to retain the woman or expects her to be absent more. Sometimes it is very obvious if a woman will not be in it for the long haul or, conversely, if she is likely to stay for many years. Also, perhaps the employer simply prefers to work with men, or prefers to work with women. He should be free to decide on the basis of these preferences.

Here are a few working principles on this subject:

1. The government, at least as it is currently constituted, should have no authority to intervene in compensation practices by employers.

2. It is entirely proper for an employer to favor a man over a woman in hiring because the man has, or may someday have, a family to support. Again, these preferences, if they exist, should not be mandated by the government. It should be up to the employer.

3. It’s right for society to exert a strong, positive influence on employers to consider the employment needs of men first. At the same time, it should discourage abuse of female workers and no one should be prevented from hiring or promoting women.

4. The employer compensates for labor, and technically a woman who works just as hard should receive just as much. However, as I said, there may be other factors. If an employer has good reason to believe a female employee will not last over time or if he simply prefers working with men (or with women), he should be free to discriminate.

5. Businesses are, to some extent, religious institutions. In other words, they act according to certain religious presuppositions. Where the reigning religion is the atheistic secular state and free trade, businesses are likely to be more cut-throat and unprincipled. All the discrimination laws in the world cannot change this fact.

—– Comments —–

Kevin M. writes:

I actually remember that show. It was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and I remember seeing that episode when I was a teenager. Lou Grant tells Mary that “of course” a man gets paid more when he has a family to support.

I don’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I recall dialogue from a 70s TV show. What’s wrong with me?!

Natassia writes:

I really wish feminists would make up their minds. Do they want people to be paid based on merit or do they want a society based on “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”?

They want affirmative action in hiring and college admissions and in government bidding, but they don’t want affirmative action when it comes to pay. Of course a man with a dependent wife and dependent children needs more money, just as black and Latino college applicants need the test score standards lowered, and female soldiers need the military physical standards lowered. But by God, they’ll be damned if a man gets paid more money because he has more mouths to feed.

Brenda writes:

I remember that episode too. After Mr. Grant tells Mary that of course she’s not earning what her male predecessor made, Mary leaves the office, very subdued. But her problem nags at her, and she heads back into the office and says (something to the effect of), “No…, Mr. Grant. If that were so, then you would pay a man with six children more than you’d pay a man with three children. And you don’t do that.”

I really liked The Mary Tyler Moore show. Saturday nights were wonderful for TV viewing back then.

Terry Morris writes:

Good topic, excellent post.

I have a rule that I try to follow when it comes to disagreements like these. My children know, for example, that in general I’m not interested in involving myself directly in their petty disagreements, whether they be between one another, or between themselves and one or more of their friends from our neighborhood. And the reason I have no interest in them is because there are invariably as many versions of the same story as there are children involved in the dispute. Sometimes this involves out-and-out lying on one or more of their parts, but more generally it involves two or more perspectives from which each individual is viewing the elements of the disagreement.

Generally speaking the argument over ‘equal pay for equal work’ involves two parties – the employer and the employee – coming at the issue from their own unique perspectives. So it’s not as simple as the foregoing slogan seems designed to make it sound. I find that this is the case with most political slogans, but that’s the subject of another post.

A third party – the government – enters the equation whenever one or the other of the two legitimate parties convinces it that it (the government) must settle the issue in her favor. However, and this is key in these issues, the government rarely, if ever, arbitrates such issues on the basis of “fairness,” or justice (although it claims that this is what it is doing, in the attempt to justify the unjustifiable), but rather on the basis of how it (the government) can gain from its arbitration power and influence, and, of course revenues. If the government stays out of it, what is there to be gained by the government? If the government involves itself solely onthe basis of justice, what is to be gained unto itself? Only peace, and the liberty to deal with more pressing and more appropriate matters. But this is not what the government is interested in.

This is one reason that a normal, well functioning society should discourage female careerism. Since women in the work force tend to be worth less in terms of monetary compensation for services rendered than their male counterparts are, at least from the employer’s perspective, regardless of what he bases this attitude on, they therefore tend to need the assistance of government to secure to themselves what they think is their due. But in the end it is a net loss, not a net gain. Even to themselves. So in essence women who demand equal pay for equal work are their own worst enemies. In the exact same way that people (including men) who demand government mandated minimum wages, overtime pay, paid leave time and things like this, are their own worst enemies unbeknownst to themselves.

But it’ll all come out in the wash one day. If it ever dawns on them that, by and with the aid of (arbitrary) government, they’ve put the knife to their own throats, women might become a useful and mighty force again in the cause of liberty and justice, and the American way. Like their revolutionary forbears.

I do have a question though:

Is there a differently constituted government that you were thinking of when you qualified your statement, in principle no. 1, declaring that government should not have authority in these matters – a government so-constituted that it could be safely entrusted with this power? I’ve put some thought to it, and admit that I can’t think of one myself. But that I can’t think of one doesn’t necessarily mean much. The only thing close that I can think of is a government so-designed that its framers would not acknowledge in its constitution such arbitration between employers and employees as a legitimate function of government. Unless, of course, the government is the employer.

Laura writes:

Excellent points.

As to your question, the only government I had in mind when I wrote that phrase was perhaps a small monarchy in which  the reigning monarch or his ministers were able to exert influence on an employer or feudal leader to bring an unjust practice to an end. In other words, a government radically different from our constitutional democracies.

You write:

If it ever dawns on them that, by and with the aid of (arbitrary) government, they’ve put the knife to their own throats, women might become a useful and mighty force again in the cause of liberty and justice, and the American way. Like their revolutionary forbears.

Yes, I think that could happen.

As Steve Moxon writes in his book The Woman Racket, married women used to be the prime supporters of job discrimination against married women. They did this not just to ensure their own livelihood through men but to protect themselves in the event of disaster and if they had to work. A woman who had no husband (and was likely to have no husband) was considered deserving of compensation equal to a man. I believe he was discussing an informal “marriage bar” in England, not codified discrimination.

Again, I don’t support formal discrimination against women in employment. There is a good argument for quotas to limit the number of women in professional schools, such as medical and law school.

Laura writes:

Natassia said:

They [feminists] want affirmative action in hiring and college admissions and in government bidding, but they don’t want affirmative action when it comes to pay.

Maybe I’ve misunderstood her, but feminists do want affirmative action when it comes to pay. That’s what the whole ‘equal pay, equal work” movement is about.

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