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Equal benefits for women

The US Supreme Court's pension decision may be narrowly viewed as another measured step forward in the drive of women for equality in all aspects of American society - and particularly for economic equality. Its broader significance is that it forces employers further in the direction of viewing all their employees as individuals, rather than considering people as a group - a crucial element in the court's action.

Insurance companies now must be permitted the higher pension premiums almost surely needed to finance this decision. But it is essential that state insurance regulatory agencies be vigilant in protecting the public's interest - and insist that the increases be only what is really necessary.

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In a 5-4 decision the court ruled that it is not legal for men to get higher monthly pension annuity benefits than women if they pay in the same amount for premiums.

This differentiation had been based on actuarial tables, which showed that women as a group live longer than men. As a consequence, insurance companies had argued, over their total lifespans women on average would collect as much pension money as men, though the monthly income differed.

The court majority held this differentiation was not legally proper. Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing the majority opinion, embraced an earlier high court ruling. He said it ''squarely rejected the notion that, because women as a class live longer than men, an employer may adopt a retirement plan that treats every individual woman less favorably than every individual man.''

Actuarial tables could find life expectancy differences based on race or national origin, he noted, as well as sex. He added that it would be ''unlawful to use race-based actuarial tables '' - thus it is unlawful to use tables based on sex.

Moving now through Congress are a number of bills which sponsors say would correct many economic inequities against women - the total package often called the Economic Equity Act. The bills include further pension reform, higher tax credits for day-care services, and moves to force fathers to contribute court-ordered child support.

With 1984 an election year and both parties especially aware of the ballot-box clout of women, at least some of these proposals are considered to have a reasonable prospect of passage. Some congressional supporters of these bills felt at first glance that the court decision modestly advanced their cause , if only by ''keeping the issues alive'' during a congressional recess, as one put it.

For women to achieve complete equity in the marketplace other steps also need to be taken which do not require legislation. One is to see that qualified women are seriously considered for executive positions. Another - increasingly a long-term aim of some women activists - is to raise the salary for skilled jobs traditionally filled by women, such as teaching, social work, and positions in good day-care centers, so that it is comparable to the pay in other fields which require similar amounts of training and demonstrated skill.

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