Book Bag: Lilly Ledbetter's Story
Lilly Ledbetter writes about tough years in Grace and Grit: My Fight For Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond (Crown $25). Her case led to her 2009 namesake legislation. Women For Hire talked to her.
After 19 years at Goodyear, you earned thousands less than men in your position. How did that affect you?
I was devastated and I felt a certain humiliation that I had been treated that way. And then I had to think about how much my family had suffered and done without, through no fault of mine, but through the discrimination of my employer.
That’s exactly what I thought about it. It just hit me how hard it had been and what my family had done without because I wasn’t paid what I had legally earned and was entitled to.
What indignities did you suffer at Goodyear and why did you put up with it? Early on, they had had so few women especially in the management area, and so there was a lot of sexual harassment and the language was terrible.
But the reason I put up with it was because I felt women got this type of treatment most anywhere. I thought that if I did the job and earned my co-workers respect, that the environment would be better for the people in those jobs after me. In other words, I felt I was a trailblazer to go through this and prove my capability. All I asked was for was the chance to do the job, prove what I could do and be treated fairly.
Since your story became public, what have women managers in other companies and fields told you? Do you think your treatment is the exception to the rule – or not?
My Story is only the tip of the iceberg. That’s why this story remains popular and part of the national conversation. Everyone can relate to it because fair pay is ultimately a family affair: when women are not paid fairly, everyone in the family is touched by it.
I hear stories from strangers in the airport. I’ve heard about pay discrimination on the professional levels: doctors, lawyers, college professors and the media professionals. I’ve heard story after story, in letters and phone calls. Women say, “This happened to me, what should I do?” I work with the the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission now to bring training into the workplace so women will be treated fairly.
Unequal pay is a national epidemic. It’s really so sad. A woman recently asked me why we keep harping on equal pay for equal work and I said it’s because we still have unequal pay for women and minorities in this country today. Just because you have the laws doesn’t mean people are adhering to them.
You lost your long court battle in the Supreme Court on a technicality. But your story led to landmark legislation signed by President Obama. What does the legislation do and how does that make you feel?
The Supreme Court ruling against me, 5-4, interpreted a law and created a technicality. The ruling told me that although I was in the right, I had waited too long to file my claim, even though I filed suit as soon as I found out I was being paid unfairly.
The ruling was an interpretation of the law, not in my favor, and the legislation Obama signed restored the original meaning of employment discrimination laws to protect people from this timeline issue.
The Act carrying my name – The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay and Restoration Act – means so much to every working family in the country because it gives them the right — if they’re doing a job and getting a paycheck – to file an unequal pay charge 180 days from the date they received their most recent paycheck. The stroke of that pen that morning in the White House meant so much. I knew it would protect all women and their families and would give them back rights that had been taken away from them.
What is your message to any working woman today?
Make sure when you start your career to be sure you are being paid what you’re entitled to. You can’t afford to start out behind — because you can never catch up. It will affect you for the rest of your lives, so be sure you negotiate, get paid what you should be paid and demand fair treatment.
When you do the math, if you start out with a one thousand dollar difference in salary, in 25 years, you’ll be a million dollars behind. Raises are usually based on percentages, so when you start with less, you receive less as you go forward. It’s a nightmare.