Lilly Ledbetter is an advocate famous for her work in fighting pay discrimination. Born in a small Alabama town in 1938, her story of unfair pay made its way to the national stage and resulted in real legislative change during the Obama presidency, and is now soon to be the subject of a feature film. Though her circumstances are unique, women today can, like Ledbetter, take steps to continue to work for equal pay.
Lilly Ledbetter's story of speaking up
Ledbetter was hired by Goodyear at a tire plant in Alabama as an overnight shift supervisor in 1979. For almost 10 years she worked there as the only woman in her role, even receiving a Top Performance Award for her work. In 1998, nearing retirement, Ledbetter received an anonymous tip that she was being paid thousands less than her male peers for the same work. She filed a sex-based pay discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and after an early retirement, she sued for pay discrimination under the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The case went to trial and, many conflicting court decisions and reversals later, wound up in the Supreme Court almost 10 years after her initial complaint. There, the justices sided with Goodyear—because of what can only be described as a technicality.
Although Supreme Court did not disagree that there had been sexist discrimination, it interpreted Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which protects employees against discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, or religion) to mean that a pay discrimination case is only valid within 180 days of the first act discrimination—often an employee’s first paycheck. The Supreme Court found Ledbetter’s case ineligible since it was past the statute of limitations.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a dissent she famously read from the bench, argued that the majority of the court doesn’t understand the “insidious” nature of gender-based pay discrimination, which is often rooted in secrecy, and has lasting impact and effects over an employee’s career. Ginsburg called on Congress to change the law.
After campaigning by Ledbetter and many women’s and labor rights organizations, in 2009, Congress passed with bipartisan support the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which resets the 180-day statute of limitations for an equal-pay lawsuit with each discriminatory paycheck.
Today, despite the passage of the legislation, a gender pay gap still exists 12 years later for a variety of reasons directly and indirectly related to outright pay discrimination. One direct contributor? The continued, widespread pay secrecy that RBG alluded to and Ledbetter experienced firsthand; the practice keeps women from knowing when they’re being discriminated against. Few companies have embraced full or partial pay transparency, and talking about pay with coworkers remains taboo. We definitely won’t all receive an anonymous tip.
“Society hasn’t changed enough from the time Lilly was working,” says Lanier Isom, who co-wrote Ledbetter’s biography Grace and Grit: How I Won My Fight at Goodyear and Beyond.
But there are ways you can plug into the fight for equal pay—both on an individual level, and joining larger collective actions.
Here are four things you can do now to honor Ledbetter’s legacy
1. Support present-day legislation
A new Paycheck Fairness Act was just introduced into the House of Representatives to address the gender pay gap in January 2021.
“The Equal Pay Act was signed into law back in 1963. But since that act originated, it’s really been weakened by a lot of loopholes and adverse court rulings that result in protections that are much less effective than Congress initially intended them to be,” says Shannon Williams, director of the Equal Pay Today! campaign at Equal Rights Advocates.
“The Paycheck Fairness Act would play a really important part in addressing the pay gap if it were to pass and help to close some of those loopholes.”
The Paycheck Fairness Act would have four main impacts on women’s rights in the workplace, says Williams:
It would make it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers for discussing their paycheck with colleagues, which Williams says is an issue that her organization often deals with.
It make it illegal for employers to ask a job applicant about their salary history—something that is currently legal in more than half of the states in the U.S. That’s important because women—especially women of color—continue to earn less than men, and a salary based on prior wages does little but continue unfair and discriminatory pay. “This would really help to break the cycle of the wage gap,” Williams says. “Using prior pay to set someone’s new pay really allows discrimination to follow you.”
It would put the responsibility on employers to explain why a woman employee is paid less. They would have to prove that pay disparities exist for legitimate, job-related reasons, and are not sex-related.
It removes obstacles for workers who want to challenge a company’s pay discrimination in court as class action lawsuits (currently under the Equal Pay Act each plaintiff in a class action suit must give written consent.)
Williams encourages people to call or write to their legislators and tell them you care about the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act.
2. Ask your company to collect pay data
A key tool in the fight for equal pay for all, regardless of gender or race, is information. When companies regularly collect data about worker compensation, including gender, race, and ethnicity, it is much easier for federal agencies and legal organizations to enforce equal pay protections and rectify issues of unequal pay. Companies can lead the way by sharing their employee salaries publicly (like Buffer) or making public their pay equity analyses and gender pay gap data (like Adobe).
“Depending on your comfort level, you can ask your company to start collecting pay data based on gender, race, and ethnicity,” Williams says. “We can’t really fix what we can’t see.”
3. Talk about your salary
In the U.S., there’s a social taboo about talking about money. While avoiding the topic can prevent discomfort, it also is a way that economic inequality is allowed to continue. Breaking the cycle and bringing up the topic of money can be scary, but it is a way of gaining information that can disrupt unequal practices and policies.
“I think there’s still a stigma. Women are not taught to negotiate and talk about money, especially in the South,” says Isom, who like Ledbetter lives in Alabama.
“You can just begin having those conversations with your group of friends at brunch, comparing how much you get paid,” Williams says.
Once you get more comfortable talking with friends about money, bringing it up with coworkers is the next step.
“There’s a lot of hesitation sometimes to talk about what you’re making, or it seems taboo to talk about pay and nobody really likes to do it, but it’s really important,” Williams says.
This is one place where men can be allies, Williams says. “Men: Start having conversations with women who you know have similar qualifications and education and ask how much they’re making. If you find out that it’s less than you are making, and you know it shouldn’t be, be an advocate.”
While talking about salaries can build power, connection, and support equality in the workplace, there is still a chance that workplaces could penalize you for it (though this is generally illegal), and people should know there are legal advocacy organizations (including Equal Rights Advocates) who can support those who speak out against injustices.
“There are people in your corner that are really going to be advocates for you if you’re going to be a trailblazer and start to have those conversations in your company,” Williams says.
4. Understand the bigger picture
Even though Ledbetter knew her own years of unequal pay wouldn’t be rectified with a Congressional act, she was determined to work for the betterment of women in the future that they wouldn’t encounter the same problem.
“The story is about her perseverance, her refusal to give up, and her quest to stand up for what is right for her and for the next generations behind her,” Isom says.
Maybe you are perfectly happy with your salary and don’t see any need to speak up against gender discrimination. But pay disparities can really add up over time. Earning 81 cents to a man’s dollar might not seem like a huge difference, but that exceeds $10,000 per year less than men. And because it’s a large-scale problem, women around the country are being prevented from earning money they deserve because of sexist discrimination, affecting them and their families for generations.
While gender discrimination affects women of all backgrounds, these pay gaps are often more significant for women of color who face societal racism in addition to sexism. According to the National Women’s Law Center, Black women lose $23,653 per year on average due to gender and racial gaps compared to white, non-Hispanic men. Latina women lose $28,386 annually, and Native women lose $24,443. On average, Asian women earn more than white women and, therefore, have the smallest wage gap, but they still lose $9,010 each year, and even within that demographic, some Asian women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds earn far less than others.
Read more: 6 Common Myths About Equal (or Unequal) Pay
And looking with an intersectional lens at the issue brings even more troubling findings.There is also a very real disabled pay gap. On average, a disabled worker earns $.63 to a non-disabled peer’s $1 earned. (This pay gap actually worsens with advanced educational attainment.) While there needs to be more research done on pay gaps for transgender and gender noncomforming people (and more research in general on LGBTQ+ pay disparities), one study shows that trans women’s earning fall by one-third once they transition. Pay discrimination is an injustice with deep and tangled roots that requires real and meaningful action.
Taking action on equal pay means addressing an issue that’s bigger than any individual. Learning about and understanding issues that affect women’s ability to make fair wages at work can be done at a variety of levels. Occupational sorting or segregation, the separation of women and people of color into low-paying jobs, maintains inequality and can be deadly during a pandemic. Research shows that women’s pay decreases when they have children—sometimes known as the “motherhood penalty”—often due to lack of employer paid parental caregiving leave policies. Pay secrecy policies, though technically illegal, persist at many companies and prohibit employees from discussing their pay.
“What I learned from Lilly is that it does take a village,” Isom says. “It takes a community for change to happen.”
Disclaimer: this article mentions wage gaps using the binary categories of male and female. The federal (Census) income data collected about US residents as well as laws that define gender pay discrimination use sex, not gender, to categorize people. This excludes gender nonconforming people including nonbinary and two-spirit people, and presents a limited picture of gender-based pay inequality.
About our sources
Lanier Isom is an author and journalist living in her hometown, Birmingham, Alabama. She wrote Grace and Grit: How I Won My Fight at Goodyear and Beyond, the life story of Alabama native Lilly Ledbetter. Lanier’s articles, editorials, and essays have been featured in numerous publications, including the LA Times, Huffington Post, and The Bitter Southerner.
Shannon Williams is an equal pay policy expert who is director of the Equal Pay Today! campaign at Equal Rights Advocates. Shannon received her B.A. from The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and her J.D. from The Appalachian School of Law.