In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law. This law provided equal pay for equal work, that a woman who did the same job as a man, for the same amount of hours, was supposed to receive the same pay. That was almost 50 years ago. Yet today, in 2012, the average woman makes only about 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Why? After all, if the law says a woman must be paid the same as a man, why don’t businesses abide by the law?
The answer is simple. They don’t have to. Anyone being underpaid—male or female—may feel they’re being discriminated against, but they can’t know unless they are aware of what their peers in a company are making, and we don’t share that kind of information with each other. It’s considered taboo and inappropriate. So, employers can pay employees whatever they want. How will you ever know what you should be getting?
Lilly Ledbetter had the feeling she wasn’t being paid as well as her male counterparts. One of her immediate supervisors even hinted at it, but Lilly never had any proof. Shortly before she retired, someone slipped a scrap of paper into her mailbox at work with the names and salaries of some of her male counterparts on it. It was all the proof she needed.
Lilly was born in Possum Trot, Alabama, in a home with no electricity or running water. She grew up, got married, had two children, and worked as a manager at an accounting firm. In 1979, she applied for a job at Goodyear in Gadsen, Alabama and was one of the first women hired there in a managerial position. She ran the overnight shift.This was 1979, a time when women were once more starting to speak up and speak out about their rights. Many men, and even women, believed they should just be quiet, go home and take care of their husbands and children. Women who were hired in predominantly male positions were often harassed and given a hard time in order to get them to quit. Lilly faced this situation, but she didn't quit. She did her job and did it well. She got regular pay raises and, in 1996, received a Top Performance Award.
Throughout the years, Lilly believed she was not being paid what her male counterparts were, but it wasn’t until she was about to retire that she learned the truth. Someone slipped a note, with names and numbers on it, into her work mailbox. Lilly was making $3,727 a month. Her lowest paid male counterpart was making over $4,000 a month, and her highest paid male counterpart was making over $5,000 a month. And if one added up all that money over all those months and all those years, Lilly Ledbetter had been shortchanged a considerable sum. Add to that the fact that all the money she didn’t receive affected her retirement fund, and the loss was even greater.Lilly sued and won. The jury awarded her approximately 3.5 million dollars. Unfortunately, there was a cap in cases like hers, and the judge reduced her award to $360,000. Then Goodyear appealed. They said Lilly only had 180 days after that first discriminatory check was issued in which to file her claim. Almost two decades had gone by. The Statute of Limitations had run out. The court agreed with Goodyear and Lilly’s award vanished into thin air.
Lilly didn’t give up. She took her case to the Supreme Court. Lilly believed that she should have had 180 days after each and every discriminatory check in which to file her claim. In a five to four decision, the court sided with Goodyear. Lilly lost her case.But something else happened that day. One of the dissenters of that decision just happened to be Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the only woman on the Supreme Court at the time, and a woman who had spent her early law years fighting for women’s rights. She read her opinion from the bench, which basically called on Congress to change the law.
Lilly listened to what Justice Ginsberg had to say and acted on it. She spoke out on radio shows and testified before congress. She got the word out. She didn’t have to. Her case was over and she had lost. She wasn’t going to gain anything by changing the law. But her daughter would gain, and her granddaughters, and all the other women in the country who were being discriminated against, so she took her fight to congress, and in 2009, the first bill President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which resets the 180 day deadline with each discriminatory check.Lilly is now over 70 years old and lives in Jacksonville, Alabama. She still speaks out to make women aware of their rights. For a nice video put together by the Annenburg Foundation which gives more details about her and the law she fought for, click here. And remember, equal pay for equal work is not an employer’s prerogative. It’s the law. Are you getting what you deserve?
For more on Lilly Ledbetter and the Fair Pay Act, see an earlier post by Diane Mayr.