By Claire O'Connor
The term “tireless” can be thrown around rather frivolously, but it’s apt in the case of Lilly Ledbetter. At age 78, the equal pay activist spends much of her time on the road, traveling between speaking engagements and summits, like last week’s United State of Women conference in Washington, D.C., where she got an onstage shout-out from the first self-described feminist commander-in-chief (“a good friend of mine,” President Obama said of Ledbetter).
But commend her stamina, and the former factory manager will remind you she spent a full decade fighting for money that was rightfully hers, going all the way to the Supreme Court, then to Congress. And that was after working almost 20 years in an Alabama tire plant, nearly always the only woman at her level of seniority.
“People are energized, and they energize me,” she said in an interview backstage at Forbes’ recent Women’s Summit, where she spoke of her long fight for equality. “I want to be sure I prevent this from happening to other people.”
Ledbetter is something of an accidental advocate. In 1997, when she was nearing retirement from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant, she received an anonymous note in her mailbox detailing the salaries of men with the same job title and level of responsibility. Not only were they making 40% more than she was, but they’d been doing so for years.
“The first thing I thought about when I saw the note, was my overtime — a lot of 12-hour shifts, seven nights a week. That’s a lot of time and a half, a lot of double and triple,” Ledbetter said. “I’m thinking back on what we did without, and how hard it was on my family. How often we had to rotate bills, or figure out how we’d pay two college tuitions and a mortgage and the car payments too, and put food on the table. It was not right. And the way I am, I couldn’t let it go.”
She took her case first to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, where she was awarded $3.6 million in damages in 2006. Goodyear appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 that she’d filed her claim too late; at the time, the statute of limitations was within 180 days of a paycheck. (She never saw a dime of that $3.6 million, she said, and doesn’t expect she ever will.)
Buoyed in part by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who delivered a blistering dissent after the ruling, Ledbetter began lobbying Congress on the need to close the gender pay gap. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was the first bill President Obama signed into law after taking office. Thanks to Ledbetter, there’s no time limit on seeking damages for wage discrimination.
“I told the President it was quite an honor to be put in the history books from now on,” she said. “I knew that signature meant that in the future, women and minorities could have that option if they learned they were being discriminated against. They can file that charge. They can go out and ask for help. Because what the ruling in the Ledbetter case did was shut it down. What the bill did was open the courtroom doors back up.”
Ledbetter hears from women all the time — at events, at airports, via email — who suspect wage discrimination on the job and seek her help. “It’s an epidemic,” she said of pay inequality. “In this country, we have resources. We are better educated. We shouldn’t be in this situation.” She shared her advice with Forbes.
Do your research
“There’s all manner of information for people out there today,” said Ledbetter, noting that the culture of silence and secrecy around pay she experienced at Goodyear seems to be becoming a thing of the past.
“I worked for a corporation that said if you discuss your pay you won’t have a job,” she said. “So no one ever did. When the cost of living increased the rates, I never knew. I found out during the discovery for trial that I’d been paid below the minimum for many years.”
If there isn’t information on salary expectations internally, look outside your company, to wage comparison and review websites like Glassdoor and PayScale. “Now you can go out there and you can find out in your area what the going pay scale should be for your education and the job you hold,” she said.
…and always negotiate your salary
“Women must get their pay up front,” she said. “Learn to negotiate. If you don’t, what you miss is gone forever. It’s your retirement. You can’t go back and get it.”
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