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  • Writer's pictureHolly Corbett

Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act’s 15th Anniversary—The History And Impact

Lilly Ledbetter wearing a suit and speaking at a wooden podium
Ledbetter has encountered many people across the country in her years of advocating for equal pay, and says her story is also their story.DISNEY GENERAL ENTERTAINMENT CONTENT VIA GETTY IMAGES

It’s the 15th anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act first being signed in 2009, which helped to make equal pay laws more enforceable. However, the story actually begins three decades earlier.

In 1979, Lilly Ledbetter was hired as one of the only women supervisors working the night shift at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Gadsden, Alabama. Most of the women at Goodyear were secretaries and working in a separate section of the company, so there was a learning curve for Ledbetter and the men she supervised.

“When I first started, some of the men said, ‘We’re not taking bossing from a woman at work, because we take bossing from a woman at home,’” recalls Ledbetter. “So I said, ‘I’m not your boss. I’m here to bring you your schedule, make sure you're paid properly, make sure you get your vacation days. You and I will work together, and we'll produce a good product, be safe doing it, keep our house clean, and then we'll go home and come back the next night and do it again.’ So they started calling me Miss Lilly from then on, right up until I retired.”

Though she faced discrimination in this male-dominated workplace, many of the men who worked at the factory came to respect her, even going as far as to pool their money to buy her a gold bracelet when she was temporarily laid off when factory work was slow. “I was so shocked, because they put a note of appreciation with the bracelet, and they hated to see me go,” says Ledbetter.

The Realities Of The Pay Gap

In 1997, after 19 years of working at the factory and just two years before she planned on retiring, Ledbetter received an anonymous note in her work mailbox. It tipped her off that she had been paid only a fraction of the salary that her male counterparts were paid doing the same job. Understandably upset, Ledbetter says she put the note in her pocket and thought about it all through her 12-hour night shift.

“I didn't see how I'd get through that shift and hold my head up with the dignity I should, not knowing how many people throughout the factory knew how much less I made than the men,” says Ledbetter. “Halfway through the night, it occurred to me that it was not only the wages I'd been earning that I lost out on, but it was also my contributory retirement, my 401K, my social security, because it was so much less than it should have been.”

Ledbetter says that when she thought of all those factors combined, she knew she had to do something about it. She recalls, “When I got home the next morning, I explained to my husband what I had learned. I said, ‘Unless you object, I need to go to Birmingham, Alabama to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and file a charge.’ He said, ‘What time do you want to leave?’”

So started nearly a decade of Ledbetter fighting her case of being discriminated against simply because she was a woman in the court system. She won her case in court, but Goodyear appealed that decision on the account of her taking too long to file, and her case landed all the way in the Supreme Court in 2006. Ledbetter lost by one vote in a 5-4 decision, with the court saying Ledbetter should have sued within 180 days of first experiencing unequal wages as based on The Equal Pay Act of 1963—even though Ledbetter was not aware of her wage gap for almost two decades.

“According to the Court, I would have had to file a charge when the first check I got back in the 80s was unequal, which doesn't make sense,” says Ledbetter. “I had no way of knowing I’d been paid unequally as the policy was we could not talk about pay at work, or else we would be fired.”

Former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a well-known dissent, and Ledbetter recalls Justice Ginsburg sharing her own experience with gender discrimination. “Initially, when Justice Ginsburg went to work as a lawyer in her first job, they told her, ‘We will not pay you what we pay our male lawyers because you have a husband,” says Ledbetter.

Justice Ginsburg said in her dissent, “The court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination,” and went on with the challenge, “Once again, the ball is in Congress’ court.”

Turning A Personal Loss Into A Win For All

Ledbetter received no compensation and, after nearly 10 years of fighting, could have just quietly retired back home in Alabama. Instead, she says she realized this was not only her fight and her family’s fight, it was a fight for women and families across the nation. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent further motivated her to not give up, but instead to push for legislation and advocate for equal pay, traveling across the country to raise the visibility of how the gender wage gap impacts us all.

Her conviction and perseverance paid off: Former President Obama passed The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009 with bipartisan support, which was the first bill he signed as president. The new legislation made it easier to sue for pay discrimination because it allowed people to file for every unequal paycheck they received, rather than only 180 days from their first paycheck.

“The idea that an employer could profit on discriminating against someone forever if the person didn't discover their pay inequity within the first 180 days was outrageous,” says Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, who helped draft the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. “Congress fixing this just a couple of years after that terrible decision came down was a testament to not only how outrageous the decision was, but also to Lilly's fortitude and leadership, and to the many leaders in Congress, and President Obama, who understood that addressing issues of pay discrimination and fairness—that are central to this economy—was a priority.”

It’s Time To Speed Up The Path To Progress

In the last 15 years since Ledbetter’s bill was signed, the wage gap for women overall who are working full-time, year-round has closed by just 7 cents, according to analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. That’s an average of less than one-half penny per year. That means the average woman stands to lose nearly $400,000 over the course of a 40-year career, with women of color standing to lose much more.

The reality is that it is not feasible for most people to have the time or the resources or the support to take their employer to court to fight pay discrimination, so other solutions must simultaneously be put in place to help close the wage gap for good. The growing pay range transparency movement, where employers post specific pay ranges for jobs being listed, is a step in the right direction.

Most Americans support pay range transparency, with 60% of workers in favor of pay range transparency practices being implemented in their workplace and 58% of people looking for a job prefer that job postings include a pay range for their position, finds a new poll from the National Women’s Law Center and Morning Consult.

“Culturally, there was an expectation for a very long time that people shouldn't talk about pay, but I think what we have been able to make clear is that pay discrimination really thrives in the shadows,” says Goss Graves. “And that the only people who lose out when you have laws and rules that keep pay a secret are working people, especially women and women of color.”

Goss Graves believes that part of what we are undergoing is a cultural change. “So employers being able to meet a moment where workers want more pay range transparency also benefits employers too, such as by helping them to attract and retain the talent that they really want,” says Goss Graves. “The other thing is, it gives consistency for employers. If you offer a pay range that is transparent and simple, it allows workers to understand that before they apply for the job. You don't go through some long process, and at the very end figure out you’re not aligned.”

More state legislatures are supporting pay range transparency by passing laws that require employers to provide salary information to job applicants or employees at some point in the hiring process, such as in a job listing. A growing number of states, such as California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Washington, have passed pay range transparency laws, with more poised to do so in 2024.

Ledbetter believes another part of the solution is passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which does things such as protects workers from being fired if they talk about their pay at work (which is important to Ledbetter because she could have lost her job if she’d discussed her salary), bans employers from asking about salary history so the gender and racial wage gap doesn’t get perpetuated, and requires collection of pay information by the EEOC to help bring pay disparities out of the dark.

Taking steps to close the pay gap once and for all not only benefits women and families, but also companies. “If companies pay their people fairly, they’ll be more successful because their employees will give 120%, they won't stand around wasting time, but will really produce a quality service or product, whichever it is,” says Ledbetter. “And that's what you want in this country. Also, if employees are compensated fairly, then the community also benefits, because those people have more money to spend to help fuel the local economy.”

Ledbetter has encountered many people across the country in her years of advocating for equal pay, and says her story is also their story. “This is not a Republican or Democratic problem; it's the whole country’s problem,” says Ledbetter. “When I hear women tell me that they don't have enough food for their children by the end of the month even though they're working two jobs, it breaks my heart. This country's better than this.”

Even though Ledbetter didn’t receive any back pay and was pushed into retirement a year before she planned, today at 85 years old she says she would do it all over again. “It's demanding. It's hard. I missed a lot of my grandsons’ ball games, and a few family gatherings, but my family supported me,” she says. “You have to have your family support you. You do need to be tough. You can't let things affect you. You need a strong faith, and to never give up hope. I still have hope that maybe before the end of my life, we will achieve equal pay.”

*Article originally published in Forbes here.


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