On Nov. 16, 1983, a federal judge ruled that the state of Washington knowingly had discriminated against thousands of workers in predominantly female jobs. The state had paid them much less than workers in comparable jobs filled mainly by men.
Twenty years later, the concept of pay equity or comparable worth still has not gained much traction.
The ''pervasive and intensive'' wage discrimination denounced by Judge Jack Tanner referred to the results of studies commissioned by Washington state as early as 1974. Researchers analyzed jobs by evaluating the skills, effort and responsibilities necessary to carry them out. Not surprisingly, they found that clericals and others in ''women's jobs'' earned considerably less -- 32 percent less, in fact -- than workers in comparable male-dominated jobs.
Today, the wage gap between women and men remains significant. According to the National Committee on Pay Equity, women, overall, earn only 76 cents for every dollar earned by white men. The rate for women of color is far worse -- 67 cents for black women and a measly 54 cents for Latinas.
The gap is narrower than it was in 1983. Some of women's progress is due to an increase in the number of women who are union workers. In the last 20 years, the number has increased by almost one million workers, from 5.9 million to 6.8 million. Union women earn an average of 31 percent more than nonunion women.
Unfortunately, though, some of the narrowing of the wage gap has been due to the stagnation of men's wages during the current economic downturn, particularly losses for men of color. They, too, have significant pay gaps compared to white men -- for black men, the rate is 79 cents; for Latinos, 63 cents.
Why do women earn so much less than men? The 1963 Equal Pay Act says that men and women doing the same job for the same company must make the same pay. In fact, by 1963, most women and men didn't do the same jobs, and the jobs that women did were paid less just because women did them.
Significant wage discrimination based on gender was perfectly legal for decades in this country. The rationalization was that a woman needed less money because she had first her parents and then her husband to take care of her, though for large groups of workers, especially blacks and immigrants, this was often not the case.
Women performed well
When women were ''allowed'' to work in positions previously closed to them, their wages were set at one-half to two-thirds those of males. Because the women performed just fine, employers hired more and more of them to save money, and the discriminatory rate became the going rate.
Few jobs now exclude women. Yet nearly 60 percent of women workers are employed in service, sales and clerical jobs. Even within the professions, women are clustered in sectors that pay less. Women of color are concentrated in the lowest-paying jobs.
We must ask why society values accountants more than social workers, for example. We must revalue jobs performed by women (and entice more men into them) as well as move women into male-dominated jobs.
Hundreds of organizations nationwide, including ours, support measures to remove gender as a factor in pay. The Fair Pay Act would prohibit wage discrimination based on sex, race and national origin by requiring employers to provide equal pay for work of equal value, whether or not the jobs are the same.
A lot is at stake. A recent study found that 40 percent of poor working women could leave welfare programs if they were to obtain pay equity.
The AFL-CIO estimates that women lose an average of $500,000 over a lifetime because of unequal pay. Imagine the positive impact on women and their families -- and on taxpayers -- if we made a commitment to pay equity.
Ellen Bravo is director of 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women.
Copyright 2003 Miami Herald