Fight for Fair Pay Comes with Fear of Retaliation

Businesswoman at her desk

Image: Thinkstock

April 19, 2013

A now-defunct engineering firm represented a career opportunity to a woman in her 20s — until she learned that the company paid women less and kept them out of certain positions.

The woman, who asked that her name not be used in this blog, took a job as a marketing manager at the Virginia firm in the 1980s. She liked her job and the people she worked with, and she received a favorable job review from her immediate manager.

The trouble began when she learned that she had to help cover the phones while the secretaries were out at lunch — an extra task only given to female employees.

When she brought up this discrepancy, the owner told her immediate manager to change her positive job review. She then learned the full range of discrimination that the company practiced at the direction of the owner. She learned that women were paid significantly less and that the owner had a policy that they couldn’t be hired as technicians because “women can’t use tools.” Women and men were put on two different career tracks.

The owner also had a policy that no black person was supposed to interact with customers and that Christian men got better training than Jewish men.

“This large-scale, blatant discrimination against women and minorities had been going on for ages, but everyone was scared of the owner,” she said.

She was afraid too but felt she had to do something, so she went to the local civil rights office and filed a complaint. “I snuck over there because I was scared to death of this man,” she said. “I knew he had done many illegal things. I didn’t know where he would stop.”

He didn’t stop. The owner of the company retaliated against her for being a whistleblower. According to her, he asked the local civil rights office, How do I get rid of her? She said that was proof to the civil rights office that there was indeed a case.

For a few months, while the civil rights office investigated, she still worked at the firm and reported back. She said she would sneak off to pay phones at lunch to call the office with the evidence she had gathered. She remained terrified of the owner and said she would watch to make sure no one was following her when she drove home from work.

“I didn’t know if I was going to get beat up or what,” she said. “I was scared, but I was in my 20s and felt like I needed this time on my résumé. Women are particularly vulnerable in their 20s because they aren’t established yet, they need references, and they’ll put up with things that they wouldn’t put up with later.”

Eventually, she was awarded the raise she didn’t receive because of the altered job review, and the company was forced to change its policies. She left for another job, and the company doesn’t exist anymore. But her memories — and fear of the owner — remain vivid years later. She remembers feeling like there weren’t enough protections in place to allow employees to file complaints.

“A lot of the other employees were older and had families,” she said. “I felt that I was in a situation where I could take a greater degree of risk than other people could. It was simply the right thing to do.”

No employee should have to risk themselves or their families to receive fair pay. The Paycheck Fairness Act would protect employees from retaliation if they ask about employers’ wage practices and would implement stronger deterrents designed to stop discrimination before it starts. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) has launched a discharge petition to bring it to a vote in the House. Tell your representative.

This is the third post in AAUW’s series about women’s struggles to receive fair pay. Learn more about the pay gap and join AAUW in the fight for fair pay

 

Elizabeth Owens By:   |   April 19, 2013

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