I Didn’t Get Equal Pay. You Should.May 31, 2012
Editor’s note: Today, the House of Representatives voted 233-180 against considering the Paycheck Fairness Act, and the Senate is also expected to vote on the bill next week. This post is adapted from the statement that Lilly Ledbetter submitted to the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on Wednesday.
Nobody wants to be the poster child for unequal pay for equal work, but that’s just what happened to me. Five years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against me in my sex discrimination case against Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. In that 5-4 ruling, the justices took away everything a jury of my peers had awarded me after being unfairly paid for years — even my back pay.
The court said I should have complained every time I got a smaller raise than the men, even if I didn’t know what the men were getting paid and even if I had no way to prove the decision was discriminatory. In other words, the court said if you don’t figure things out right away, a company can treat you like a second-class citizen for the rest of your career.
I won’t lie to you — I was pretty devastated by that decision. But instead of taking it quietly, I’ve been fighting back from the moment the court made its ruling. In 2009, President Barack Obama corrected this injustice by making the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act the first bill he signed into law. This law allows people to challenge every discriminatory paycheck they receive — it’s just common sense when you think about it.
But my legislation was only one stop on the road to fair pay. I’m on the front lines again, advocating for another bill that will bring us even closer to the dream of equal pay for equal work: the Paycheck Fairness Act. The Paycheck Fairness Act faces a critical vote in the Senate next week, and I’m so heartened to see the House making its own noise on an issue that is so near and dear to my heart.
The Paycheck Fairness Act is the first update to the 1963 Equal Pay Act since it was passed almost 50 years ago. You won’t find a stronger supporter of this bill than me. Why? Because it takes real steps to create stronger incentives for employers to follow the law, deterring pay discrimination before it even starts. Better still, these same steps reflect many of the common practices that other civil rights laws have used for years — bringing the Equal Pay Act into the 21st century while at the same time utilizing principles that are familiar to businesses. With the extension of these reasonable and familiar ideas, we can treat both businesses and women fairly. Take it from me, women don’t want to go to court — we’d much prefer that everyone just follow the law in the first place!
The bill would also establish new training and research initiatives and create education programs to help both employers and employees prevent situations like mine from ever happening at all. This bill would also strengthen federal outreach and enforcement efforts, helping to empower women to negotiate for equal pay.
From my perspective, one of the most important provisions of the bill would prohibit retaliation against workers who ask about employers’ wage practices or disclose their own wages to others. This provision would have been particularly helpful to me because Goodyear prohibited me and my colleagues from discussing or sharing information about our wages. They made it clear we could be fired if we did — and this was perfectly legal! This old-school policy delayed my discovery of the pay inequities between me and my male co-workers by almost 20 years. I only learned the details thanks to an anonymous tip I received shortly before my retirement. I still don’t know who sent me that note. They have been wise to stay silent because they could still be fired for sharing that simple truth with me.
I may have lost my personal battle, but I refuse to lose the war. I’m still fighting for all the other women and girls out there who deserve equal pay and equal treatment under the law. I need your help, because my law is just a down payment. I urge you to join me and my friends at AAUW to take action and tell your senators to move the Paycheck Fairness Act forward and pass a strong bill that will help women and their families.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Giving women my Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act without the Paycheck Fairness Act is like giving them a nail without the hammer.
This post was written by fair pay advocate and friend of AAUW Lilly Ledbetter.