Lilly Ledbetter’s Take: Overcoming Unequal Pay

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Published on October 12, 2018, at 2:30 p.m.
by Elizabeth Summers.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed into law in 2009 by the Obama administration, serves as a testament to the impact Lilly Ledbetter made on American history. In 1979, Ledbetter applied for a job at Goodyear Tire Factory and was one of the first women hired for a management position. As she neared retirement, an anonymous note was left on her desk revealing to her a gender pay gap. Ledbetter was making significantly less than men in her position at Goodyear.

Following the anonymous note, Ledbetter filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against Goodyear, which she initially won, then lost on appeal. Throughout the following years, her case made its way to the United States Supreme Court, where she suffered another loss.

Since then, Ledbetter continually fights an uphill battle to rid our country of unequal pay through her public speeches. Stacy Smith, APR, Alabama PRSA ethics chair and a public relations consultant, describes her first experience hearing Ledbetter speak.

“I first heard Lilly Ledbetter speak about four years ago. That audience of men and women, black and white, rose to an inspired standing ovation. She is an exceptional person,” states Smith. “She, like so many other people, has dealt with adversity but she persevered.” Ledbetter now uses her journey to inspire people to seek equal pay for equal work, and she advocates that sexual harassment should no longer be acceptable in the workplace.

Why equal pay matters.
According to Business Insider statistics, a woman earns 80.5 cents for every dollar a man earns, and a woman’s median annual earnings are $10,086 less than a man.

Women are 38 percent more likely to live in poverty than men, and more than one in eight women in the U.S. live in poverty. Unequal pay delves deeper than the surface-level critiques of pure gender inequality and unfairness to women. It is a constant downfall in our nation.

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Ledbetter emphasized the multifaceted consequences of unequal pay in our country. “It’s a family affair,” Ledbetter said. “When a woman is paid what she earns, it helps the family, strengthens the community and strengthens the state. Therefore, it strengthens the nation as a whole.” A national equal pay based on gender would decrease the poverty rate of working women and their families by 50 percent.

Unequal pay is a topic that most in the U.S. agree needs to change. According to JUST Capital’s 2017 polling, 82 percent of Americans agree that companies should not discriminate in pay.

Ledbetter noted politicians of both the Republican and Democratic parties supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. “The thing that is so important is that it was sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats,” she said. “When President Obama signed the law in the White House, both Republicans and Democrats stood behind him. To me, that is a record.”

If so many people are aware of the problem, why are we not seeing meaningful progress?

People are uninformed.
The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, yet women still suffer unfair pay today. Ledbetter explained this disconnect: “I thought the law had been very clearly written, but evidently it had little areas they could tweak to override the law in my case.”

According to an article by Time magazine, one in three adults is not aware of the pay gap, and men are nearly twice as likely as women to think it does not exist in the U.S. Ledbetter stresses the importance of the younger generation being informed. “Most people of the younger generation know we have an equal pay law, but they do not know that women do not get the full pay,” she said. “It is good to have the opportunity to speak to them and wake them up.”

How to avoid the pay gap.
Women undergo unfair pay due to various reasons, such as employer bias and “the motherhood penalty.” Unknowingly, employers can evaluate women’s work based on their gender, resulting in a lower pay. Additionally, women can undergo lower pay following maternity leave. Most importantly, unequal pay can occur because women are less likely to negotiate pay than men. A statistic on Glassdoor shows that 68 percent of women accepted the salary they were offered without negotiation while only 52 percent of men accepted a salary without negotiation.

Ledbetter suggests women study salary information prior to accepting a job. “It is critical that women are aware of the typical pay rate of someone who has their job and are able to negotiate a salary,” she said.

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Be transparent when discussing expectations prior to accepting a job. Smith offered this advice to battle gender inequality in the workforce: “Set your goals upfront as much as you can and share them with your prospective boss so that you can be on the same page.” Such transparency will avoid ambiguity between an employer’s and employee’s expectations.

Additionally, Ledbetter and Smith both recommend having a trusted mentor in your workplace. Smith advised seeking a mentor outside of your chain of command. Ledbetter offered similar advice: “Everyone should have a reliable mentor that looks out for you and offers you advice.”

When an employee invests in a mentor-mentee relationship, it promotes a work environment with checks and balances. Ledbetter noted, “Goodyear could have saved themselves a lot of money if my superiors had listened to me and offered me advice instead of condescending me.”

Keep moving women forward.
An article by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research states if the earnings of female and male employees change at the rate they have been between 1959 and 2015, the gender wage gap in the U.S. will not close until 2059. To expedite this process, we need to encourage women to take leadership positions in all areas, including politics and business, to ensure women’s interests stay relevant throughout decision-making.

Recently, the California Legislature passed a bill that requires all in-state, publicly traded companies to have at least one woman board member. In 2018, the proportion of women in state legislatures is 25.5 percent.

Smith emphasized the value of pursuing equal pay. “Your income is important and your income should be fair,” she said. “We are not there yet as a country, but we can all strive to be a part of that equality.”

It is imperative we all strive to be an advocate for change and remain steadfast in the fight to achieve fair pay.

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