Lilly Ledbetter: Discrimination Is 'An Epidemic' That We Must Fight to End

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jan 22, 2019

Lilly Ledbetter, a keynote speaker at the NYSSCPA’s Women’s Leadership Conference on Jan. 18, made headlines when she took her employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, to court over years of pay discrimination. While the court ruled against her, holding that her claim was time-barred, the aftermath prompted the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law in 2009. Since then, Ledbetter said she has talked to many women across the world and has concluded that the kind of discrimination she experienced is a worldwide "epidemic" that won't go away unless people, especially women, actively fight. 

"They've been taking advantage of women who work and produce and contribute and don't get paid equally," Ledbetter said. "I've heard it from women who are single mothers working two jobs through the week and another on the weekend and still can't pay their bills. This is not right in this country."

She said that this is a global problem. She recently spoke in Rome, and said she found many with stories similar to hers. She noted, too, that her book was recently published in Japan through the efforts of a female attorney who wanted to teach her students about the problem there. 

While it may be tempting to go along to get along and quiet down when one's manager promises to revisit the issue soon, Ledbetter said that women literally cannot afford to do that. She talked about how being underpaid compared to her peers directly affected her retirement, given that the pension was a percentage of what she'd made while working at Goodyear. She added that people would do well to remember that raises also tend to be calculated on a percentile basis, meaning that one's pay not only affects today but how much one will make throughout the course of her entire career. Overtime is also calculated as a percentage of base pay. More immediately, she said that deferring the question also means giving up all the pay someone should be receiving, which cannot be recovered even after a raise. 

"That's gone, that's gone forever, and there is nothing in the law allowing a person to get it back. It's gone forever ever," she said. 

In order to speak up for themselves, however, she said that women need to get more comfortable discussing their salaries. Right now, she said, salary is seen as a sort of proxy for one's overall worth in society, and "that is what keeps a lot of women from talking about their pay." Being able to fight for equal pay means learning to discuss pay in the first place. 

"One thing I learned is [that] your salary determined who you are, how you live, what kind of car you buy, the house you live in, the kind of education your children get, [and] the clothes you buy," she said. 

Given the great variety between different types of employers, with different cultures and organizational systems, she did not share any specific steps to finding out whether someone is underpaid compared to her male peers; she advised that women "somehow, someway" find out, and then if they do discover they're being underpaid, that they figure out what they can do to address it. If all else fails, she suggested applying somewhere else. 

Members of the audience shared different ways they'd found out they were paid less compared to their male peers. One said she found out at a happy hour when colleagues were a bit more candid than usual. Another said she used the website, which has pay scales for many different companies, and she also mentioned the option of consulting recruiters in a given field. 

Ledbetter said that once someone has evidence of a pay disparity, she should try to address the problem internally first; she noted that she has a great respect for the chain of command. In her case, management repeatedly rebuffed her attempts at achieving pay equity, to the point where she felt she had no other choice but to make a complaint to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. For those trying to do the same thing, she noted that the EEOC requires proof. She said she kept a regular diary of goings on at work, as well as memos that repeatedly referred to everyone as "boys" (when she complained, the memo the next day was addressed to "boys and lady," which she said was discriminatory on its own). Both the diary and the memos were admissible as proof, and so Ledbetter recommended that women who suspect they are not getting paid what they're owed keep diaries of their own. 

Overall, she urged women not to trust that the system is working for them, and that if they are feeling uneasy about something, not to immediately think they're the cause of the problem. This was a hard lesson she'd learned over the years. 

"Goodyear had a lot of contracts with the government, and I thought, sure, they had all these rules and guidelines; surely they would be held accountable," she said. "That was my mistake. I didn't know they weren't."

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