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Sex discrimination and the jobs marketplace

Re: ``Comparable worth: Is fairness practical?'' by Marilyn Gardner, [Jan. 14]. May I commend you on the balanced way in which you presented the details and arguments for (and against) comparable worth. It is one of the best such presentations I have seen. Anne Thompson, Rocky Ford, Colo. There is a myth that pay ought to be related to age, education, and/or experience. If I spend my life training to be the best widgetmaker in the world, do I deserve a high salary regardless of whether society needs widgets or not? I think not. If society needs one more widgetmaker, then the marketplace will pay enough to make it worth my while to pursue that career.

But don't we need teachers, nurses, and secretaries just as much as we need truck drivers, garbagemen, and construction workers? The reason the first set of jobs are lower paying is an oversupply of female workers willing to take these jobs at low pay. No one is forcing a woman to take a $12,000-a-year job as a secretary as opposed to $40,000-a-year job as a CPA.

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But the message to the marketplace now is that we need an additional CPA more than we need an additional secretary. If enough women were to enter the accounting profession, there would be a scarcity of secretaries, forcing their salaries to rise.

But many women remain in these low-paying occupations for two reasons. First, these jobs offer something other than money. Some are lower pressured, offer greater job satisfaction, more flexible working hours, and some offer more flexible career paths (important if you wish to have children).

The second is that our society encourages women to pursue traditional female jobs when they are qualified and able to get higher paying jobs.

Improvements can be made by making vesting schedules of pension plans more flexible to accommodate women who wish to have children. Day-care facilities and companies' attitudes toward day care should be improved. More-flexible career paths must be developed for higher paying professions. We must constantly be on the lookout for job discrimination, and when it occurs act swiftly and justly. James P. Greaton, Harrington Park, N.J.

Advocates of basing pay rates on the principle of ``comparable worth'' are wrong in concluding that the gap between men's and women's wages demonstrates the existence of discrimination based on sex. To illustrate this point: A ton of steel, one of the most basic raw materials underlying the world's economy, sells for less than an ounce of gold, which is used primarily for ornament and filling teeth. Those of the comparable worth school must see this as an example of egregious discrimination against steel.

But if not discrimination, then what causes the well-documented gap between men's and women's wages? One factor is that the job market for women is undercut to a greater degree than for men by participants who don't need a wage level sufficient to support a family. Not that this justifies lower wages for women; but the lesser needs of some women enable them to enter lower-paying occupations in greater numbers than men.

It should be noted that occupations most frequently cited as examples of discrimination in pay are among those subject to heavy government regulation and interference.

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Salaries for teachers remain low because local school boards are unwilling to seek tax increases sufficient to pay a decent wage; the result affects not only teachers but the entire system of public education in the US.

Setting pay scales on the basis of ``comparable worth'' is a form of social engineering which might be justified to correct a situation involving discrimination, but in the absence of a clear demonstration of discrimination, those seeking to close the pay gap should look to other solutions:

Unifying the job market for men and women by discouraging the perpetuation of sex-based stereotypes, particularly in the schools.

Developing programs to allow greater job mobility among adults.

Reducing government regulation of and interference in the job market. Eric and Marian Klieber, Madison, Wis.

Ms. Gardner mentions the $800 million cost to equalize wages for 15,000 women government workers in Washington State. Peter Osterlund states in the article, `` `Wage Struggle' or `fight for equality,' Yale union bout goes on'' [Jan. 17], that a 40 percent wage increase over the next three years for women at Yale could bring pay equality there. Unequal pay practices lead to diminished lives. Entering the financial markets is made difficult, resulting in a lack of business knowledge. Women's experience gained through participation would give a positive impact to the nation's economic and political systems. Elizabeth Williams, Carlsbad, Calif.

Letters are welcome. Only a selection can be published and none individually acknowledged. All are subject to condensation. Please address letters to ``readers write.''

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