An anonymous letter pointing out how Lilly Ledbetter was earning 40% less than the male workers in her position sparked a decade-long crusade for equal pay that rose all the way to the Supreme Court, reverberated through the halls of Congress, and culminated with the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Pay Act in 2009.
The equal pay pioneer now advises women to get their equal pay upfront. “Even if it's a starting pay, it must be right because [raises] are generally percentages of what you're making. So you need to start out with as much as you can get under the law,” she said. For instance, a pay gap at the start of a woman’s career can last throughout her working years: Women’s lower lifetime earnings means they get lower Social Security payments and experience fewer opportunities to save for retirement, according to the Department of Labor.
In an interview with Yahoo Finance Live, Ledbetter encouraged women to research how much similar jobs at other companies pay.
“There's so much information and so much knowledge on the internet and other sources that we can look up,” she said. “And we can know what the going rate for that job is locally. And we can know and have a good idea of what we should be paid. And if we're not getting that, we need to, on a job, find out exactly what the problem is so we can get our income up.”
Walking away is always an option though not one Ledbetter suggests women take lightly. “If you can't work out and reach an agreement and a decision, sometimes you have to change jobs. That's not a good thing to do. Most people, they're building a retirement. They're building a program and a network, and they like where they're at, so they want to make it work,” she said.
The gender wage gap was unchanged between 2018 and 2019 with women earning 82 cents for every man’s dollar. A Bank of America report published this week found that the COVID-19 pandemic has been an additional setback to closing the economic gender gap. At today's rate, it will take 257 years until men and women get paid the same rate for the same work.
A personal toll
Ledbetter talked about the personal toll of her activism.
“I did warn my family upfront. I said, if I start, we may be in this for eight years because these are not quick solutions. The corporations have more money than you do. They can spend you out. They'll wait you out. And they'll wear you out, hoping you'll go away. But I never would [give up],” said Ledbetter. “Once I went in, I was determined I would see it through, regardless of the outcome because that was another American right by law.”
Ledbetter filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1998 and later sued Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, her employer, for sex discrimination.
Although an Alabama jury initially awarded Ledbetter more than $3 million in damages and $223,776 in back pay along with $4,662 in compensatory damages, she was denied any restitution from Goodyear by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court rejected her discrimination claim based on a 180-day statutory limitation on discrimination claims against employers. Undeterred, Ledbetter resolved to change the law and turned to Barack Obama who was then a junior senator from Illinois for help.
“Women just do not get paid what they are legally earning under the law,” said Ledbetter. “I had to get President Obama elected and some people to support him to get this bill passed.”
Ledbetter travelled the country campaigning for Obama. Once he got elected in 2008, Ledbetter worked with him on getting the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed. The legislation lifted the 180-day filing period restriction for discrimination cases and requires employers to keep records of their pay practices to ensure they are non-discriminatory.
“[Obama and I] became friends...and I made many trips to the White House,” said Ledbetter.
The Ledbetter bill was co-sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans. “They would fly me to Washington and I’d walk the halls of Congress lobbying for the Ledbetter bill [even though] it wouldn’t help me. I never got a dime. I never would get any, but it was for all of the people out there still working today,” she said.
Ledbetter’s husband passed away a month before Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act with Ledbetter at his side.
“I sign this bill for my daughters, and all those who will come after us, because I want them to grow up in a nation that values their contributions, where there are no limits to their dreams and they have opportunities their mothers and grandmothers never could have imagined,” said Obama in 2009.
Ledbetter and Obama are still friends today.
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