What Does Comparable Work Mean When Comparing Predominantly-Female to Male Jobs?

            Each winter around the first week of February, the Connecticut General Assembly goes into action debating and passing laws through the spring. Those laws typically go into effect the following October 1st. This past Friday was October 1st, so new laws have gone into effect impacting the way folks work and run businesses.
            The legislature has passed a fairly robust new wage discrimination law respecting gender differences in pay. Currently gender-based pay discrimination has been difficult to prove under Connecticut law and practically impossible under federal law.
            Under the current law, in order to be successful, a plaintiff must show that wage differences for “equal” work are not a result of differences in skill, effort, or responsibility required to do the job.
            The new law broadens the standard to apply to “comparable” work instead of “equal” work. “Equal” work is difficult to prove because there are often small differences in jobs that render them unequal, even though the jobs are comparable.   
            Thus, under the new law, discrimination occurs if two employees perform “comparable” work requiring “comparable” levels of skill, effort, and responsibility under similar work conditions.
            That new definition makes me wonder whether custodians in a school and paraprofessionals in a school perform “comparable” work. The job descriptions are obviously different.
But custodians and paras generally require the same amount of education to perform their duties. The effort in terms of performing the duties is comparable in terms of  physical and mental demands. And the responsibilities in terms of maintaining a safe and secure learning environment for students are comparable. In terms of value brought to the school district and its students, custodians and paraprofessionals provide essentially equal value.
            However paraprofessionals, a job performed predominantly by women, are typically the lowest-paid employees in any school district. Meanwhile custodians, who have multiple overtime opportunities, are typically the highest paid non-certified (non-teaching) staff. It is no surprise that the job of custodian is predominantly staffed by men.
            So what, then, would explain the great disparity in pay, which can differ as much as thirty to forty percent in many instances?         Education can’t be a factor. Value to the district is not a differentiator. Skill and responsibility would arguably fall in favor of paras because they have direct contact with a vulnerable student population while custodians have indirect, albeit very important, connection to the student population.
            I would argue that the most important differentiator – probably the sole differentiator – is the gender of the majority of the folks performing the jobs. There is a built-in societal bias to pay men more than women dating back to the well-known archetype that men are the breadwinners in any family. That may have been so in 1955 – almost 70 years ago. Not so today.
            They say we’ve come a long way, baby. I’m not so sure.
            So maybe the General Assembly is on to something by passing this new pay discrimination law. But I bet if you asked them they would take my example of custodians vs. paraprofessionals and say “that’s not what we meant.” And if you asked the judges, who will ultimately interpret the law, they might say the same thing. Because the archetype survives even though society has changed.
            Wages should be evaluated in terms of value brought to the mission. Looked at that way, it is high time that women get paid on par with men. Connecticut has taken a big step in that direction. Let’s see how it plays out.

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