The Radical Movement To Close The Gender Wage Gap That You’ve Never Heard Of

In the late 1970s and 1980s, there was a movement in state governments — one that, since then, has fallen by the wayside. The idea was simple, but significant: Instead of focusing on equal pay for equal work as we commonly think about it now, governments required employers to pay a man and a women the same for doing similar work but in different jobs, based on the level of required skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions. For example, women’s sports coaches tend to be paid less than men’s sports because they bring in less money. But if they do the same kinds of work, pay equity or comparable pay would require they be compensated the same.

By 1989, 20 states had made such comparable worth wage adjustments among their own workforces. Between 1983 and 1992, these governments spent more than $527 million to adjust the pay of lower-paid female jobs, giving more than 335,000 workers a raise. They eliminated less than 20 percent of the gender wage gap, although a 1987 paper by Elaine Sorensen found that a national comparable worth policy would eliminate 28 percent of the gender wage gap. Another 23 states undertook pay equity studies during the same period.

And, for the purposes of evening pay differences between men and women, it worked. In a research paper from the early 1990s, Heidi Hartman, currently president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and Stephanie Aaronson did an assessment of the states that had enacted at least one-time pay equity efforts.

It is a valid approach to a real life problem… Raising pay raises pay.

“The report concluded that it is a valid approach to a real life problem,” Hartmann told ThinkProgress. “It’s definitely effective… Raising pay raises pay.” The report notes that in all of the states that adjusted wages, the ratio of women’s wages to men’s improved, ranging from a one to eight percentage point change and improving far more than the national ratio at the time. In five states, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, and Connecticut, the wage gap was reduced by 25 to 33 percent. The researchers also ran a regression analysis for some of the states and concluded that “most of the observed change…was, in fact, the result of pay equity implementation,” rather than other potential forces. Meanwhile, they didn’t find any substantial negative effects like job losses or lower employment growth.


While the fight today has focused entirely on equal pay, the pay equity fight may need to come back in order to make faster progress on the gender wage gap. There hasn’t been significant progress in closing it for a decade. While banning the practice of keeping workers from discussing pay and helping women bring lawsuits when men in the same job are paid more can help to start closing it, raising compensation for the lower-paid jobs women tend to hold will get us even further.

Minnesota was the first state to enact a pay equity program among its public workforces during this push, back in 1984, and it’s still in place today. There are likely a few others as well. Iowa law states, for example, “It is the policy of this state that a state department, board, commission, or agency shall not discriminate in compensation for work of comparable worth between jobs held predominantly by women and jobs held predominantly by men.” But the organizations that used to track state efforts comprehensively have bled funding and there’s no central database anymore. As an example of how the movement has lost momentum, the National Committee on Pay Equity, which tracked these efforts, no longer has a paid staff is now just a volunteer organization.

Minnesota’s program has stood the test of time. In 1984, the state required all cities, counties, school districts, and other government entities to participate in the comparable worth assessment and adjustment, and around the same time it also earmarked funds to raise state employees’ wages if they were found to be out of line. Today, there are about 1,500 local governments that have to comply, according to Faith Zwemke, who administered Minnesota’s pay equity program for 23 years.

Local governments had to run all of their jobs through a system that scored them based on the required level of knowledge, problem solving, responsibility, and working conditions. Zwemke noted that “you could have very different jobs that would come up with similar points or even the same points, and that’s where we would look for any sex-based wage disparities.” The program also ran other tests, such as looking at how many years it took employees in different jobs to read the maximum salary for their position or whether there was exceptional service or other kinds of performance pay available. “We came to find out that it took 30 years for female classes to reach the maximum salary and two for male classes, so there was obviously an inequity,” Zwemke said. If inequalities cropped up and couldn’t be accounted for by experience, pay had to be adjusted.

Generally speaking, if pay equity is working, we will have cut the wage gap in about half.

The raises doled out were significant. “Some were maybe 25 cents or 40 cents an hour, some were $3 an hour or more than that,” Zwemke recalled. “It made a big difference in the lives of those women, because many of them were not in high-paying jobs to begin with. So if you’re making $6 or $7 an hour and all of a sudden you get a dollar an hour raise, that’s huge in terms of your overall paycheck.” The pay gap among state workers also narrowed from women making 69 percent of men’s pay in 1976 to 84 percent in 1993. “Generally speaking, if pay equity is working, we will have cut the wage gap in about half,” she said.


But instead of doing a one-shot assessment and adjustment, as many governments did in the 80s, Minnesota also requires these governments to go through the process every three years. That’s “what makes it work, frankly,” said Deborah Fitzpatrick, director of the Center on Women and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota. “These laws require a systemic review on a regular basis to ensure that these kinds of biases that frankly we all have…don’t creep back into the salary structure.” Zwemke noted that when the reports come in from local governments, somewhere between a quarter and a third of them are out of compliance.

Last year, the most recent year governments had to report on their pay, just 64 percent were initially compliant. “That stuff just happens, but because of the structure of the law, it’s just fixed on an ongoing basis and it doesn’t accumulate, and it doesn’t require an individual to step forward” and bring discrimination charges, Fitzpatrick explained. Most equal pay laws put the burden on women themselves to take action against disparities, “which you can imagine can be really dicey,” she added.

And the program is effective at changing these dynamics in every reporting cycle. “We had a very good success rate,” Zwemke said. “By the end of the year, we would usually get [the compliance rate] up to 95 percent, and eventually they would all get into compliance.” More than 99 percent of jurisdictions were paying similar jobs at similar rates by December of last year.

On the other hand, there are examples of pay equity efforts where bias seeped back into compensation later on because there was no system to keep checking up on them.

Fitzpatrick’s own institution, the University of Minnesota, did a pay equity study 20 years ago, which found major inequities that led to corrections. “Then it did nothing systematically to ensure that would continue on an ongoing basis,” she said. “Lo and behold, a couple of years ago it did another study, and all those inequities have crept back into the system.” Minnesota itself once experienced this dynamic. At one point, the legislature put a two-year moratorium on the requirement for local governments to report their pay inequities. “What we found out was that when that happens, when you give them five years, all of a sudden inequities come back, what inequities were there get bigger, more jurisdictions were out of compliance,” Zwemke said. “It was an eye opener about how important that regular reporting is on the three-year cycle.”

If it weren’t manageable and there weren’t positive results, I don’t think we’d still have it.

Minnesota’s program “is manageable, it has produced results,” Zwemke said. “If it weren’t manageable and there weren’t positive results, I don’t think we’d still have it.”


But it hasn’t been free from political attacks. Zwemke recalled that the original laws were “overwhelmingly bipartisan” and had support from Republican governors. But she admitted, “I think it’s tended to be more partisan as the years went on.” Fitzpatrick highlighted an effort in the legislature a couple of years ago to repeal the law based on the argument that because it has been so effective, it is no longer needed. “Just because something’s working doesn’t mean you need to get rid of it, it’s working so you need to keep it,” she noted. Yet so far the law stands. “There have been attempts over the years to weaken it and get rid of it, but they all failed,” Zwemke said.

By the 1990s, pay equity efforts started to fade away. The courts turned out to be unfavorable to this kind of pay equity claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and other characteristics. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then under the Chairmanship of now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, “voted that discrepancies based on comparable worth by itself is not a violation of Title VII,” Janice Goodman, a lawyer in New York who has worked on comparable worth cases, said. After that, the AFSCME union brought the case AFSCME v. State of Washington to the court, alleging that being paid less for similar work was pay discrimination, but the 9th Circuit issued a “fairly definitive” ruling against it, she said. AFSCME brought a few more cases, but lost them all. “The balloon burst by the end of the decade.”

While there are movements to keep the idea alive, they haven’t seen the same sort of successes as they did in the 80s and 90s. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) introduce the Fair Pay Act “every session,” Hartmann said, which would require equal pay for comparable jobs. But it only has 13 co-sponsors in the Senate and Harkin will retire after his current term. And given the spate of court decisions that failed to uphold the idea, “we simply don’t have comparable worth” from a legal standpoint, Goodman noted.

Expanding pay equity has been equally difficult. This year, Minnesota lawmakers pushed the Women’s Economic Security Act, which included the requirement that businesses that contract with the state analyze their compensation practices to look for pay equity. That would mark a jump from the public sector to the private sector. But the package has since been whittled away. “Now it’s more of an equal pay for equal work analysis,” Fitzpatrick said.

Other states have struggled to enact laws that are similar to Minnesota’s. The New York State Fair Pay Act has been passed by the state Assembly in all but one year since 2002, according to Beverly Neufeld, director of the Equal Pay Coalition. The bill is “half comparable worth and half wage transparency protections,” she said. But it always gets stuck in the Senate, failing to get out of committee. While the salary secrecy component was picked up by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) Women’s Equality Agenda and got unanimous support in both chambers, “comparable worth has been more difficult to move forward,” she noted. New York was one of the states to do a one-time assessment and adjustment of its public workforce. “But advocates at the time could not get that into law or have it looked at every five years,” she said. “I think people do understand that women’s work is undervalued, but how do we get at fixing that is complicated for not only legislators but for the public.”

Yet there may be a sea change that could create favorable conditions to bring the issue back. The United States may not have a pay equity law, but our neighbors to the north do. The Canadian Human Rights Act says that it is discriminatory to “establish or maintain differences in wages between male and female employees employed in the same establishment who are performing work of equal value,” and the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act would require putting pay equity into action for government employees, although it isn’t in effect yet. Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec all have pay equity laws for public employees, while Ontario’s and Quebec’s extend to private businesses with at least 10 employees. Ontario’s law, for example, has increased pay for thousands of women.

The issue will come back, because equal pay for equal work can only get you so far.

The idea could soon trickle south. Equal pay for women workers has once again taken root as a political issue, and comparable worth is a solution that can have dramatic results. “The issue will come back, because equal pay for equal work can only get you so far, getting women into men’s jobs can only get you so far,” Hartmann said. “The last part that needs to be done is raising the pay of women’s jobs.” President Obama may not talk much about equal pay for similar work, but he was a co-sponsor of the Fair Pay Act when he was a Senator. Neufeld noted that after the immense support for pay secrecy legislation — which President Obama has also tackled through two recent executive orders — there may be room to build on successes and bring back pay equity. “Once you get that done, we’ll see what happens with comparable worth in the future.”