Meet the Woman Trying to Smash the Gender Pay Gap

Lilly Ledbetter discusses misconceptions about pay inequity and why she supports Hillary Clinton

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Hillary Clinton; Equal Pay; Champion; Lilly Ledbetter
"It hit me like a ton of bricks," Lilly Ledbetter says, of discovering she was being paid 40 percent less than her male counterparts at Goodyear. Justin Sullivan/Getty

On Friday, the seventh anniversary of his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, President Obama introduced a slate of new measures aimed at addressing the stubborn gender pay gap.

"Today, women account for almost half of the workforce. But the typical woman who works full-time still earns 79 cents for every dollar that the typical man does," the president explained. "The gap is even wider for women of color. The typical black working woman makes only 60 cents. The typical Latino woman makes only 55 cents for every dollar a white man earns."

The pay gap "doesn't just offend our values," Obama said. "At a time when women are increasingly the breadwinners in our households, paying them less makes it harder for families to cover the necessities."

The steps he took Friday will, among other things, require companies with 100 or more employees to collect and report pay data by race, ethnicity and gender to the Department of Labor. The president also reiterated a call for Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act — legislation that would punish employers for retaliating against workers who share wage information, and allow employees to sue for punitive damages.

Lilly Ledbetter, the woman for whom the 2009 law is named, never wanted to be the face of this movement. At 77, she tells Rolling Stone she would rather be home "reading my books and [doing] other things I wanted to do in retirement instead of traveling and talking about equal pay."

Ledbetter doesn't have a choice — she missed out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime and retirement benefits because she was not paid the same amount as her male counterparts. "I have to work part-time in order to be able to stay independent — to make up the difference of what I should have gotten in my retirement," she says.

Ledbetter went to work for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant in Gadsden, Alabama, in 1979. When she was hired, she says, "they explained to me that if I discussed my pay I wouldn't have a job. It was top-secret. You just didn't talk about your pay, not on a salary level."

She didn't question her pay until 1998, when she received an anonymous note in her mailbox comparing her salary with that of three men with the exact same job. She was making 40 percent less than they were.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks," Ledbetter says. "This is not only what I'm earning now, and my overtime, but it's my retirement, my 401(k), and my Social Security."

"I was two years away from retirement, but when I found that note I filed a charge with the Equal Employment [Opportunity] Commission and they started investigating, and after about nine months they called me and said you've got one of the best cases we've ever seen," she says.

Ledbetter took Goodyear to court, and won; the jury awarded her a $3.8 million judgement, which the judge reduced to $360,000. Goodyear appealed the decision all the way to Supreme Court, where five justices sided with the corporation. They told Ledbetter that because she did not report the discrimination within 180 and days of it first occurring — even though she was not aware she was being discriminated against at that time — she wasn't entitled to any money at all.

"I didn't get one dime, and never will get anything. It's all gone, it's gone forever, so I just do the best I can and continue doing that," she says.

Today, Ledbetter works part-time as a public speaker, touring colleges and universities to discuss pay equality. She still encounters a lot of misconceptions about the pay gap, from employers who say women are to blame because they take maternity leave — "That's like saying if a man broke his leg, that should cause him to not have equal pay" — and from people who dismiss it as a myth.

To the men who don't believe they have a structural advantage, Ledbetter says, "I tell them to do the math. When a man and a woman both go to work for a company, and she starts out at just a few hundred dollars less than he does, and they get raises according to [government-mandated increases], in 20 years he will have a million dollars more than she will."

At the White House Friday, Obama applauded executives in the private sector who are taking their own measures to stamp out discrepancies in pay. After examining internal numbers at Salesforce.com last year, the company's CEO Marc Benioff spent a reported $3 million to make sure his female employees were being paid the same amount as their male colleagues in the same jobs.

Ledbetter applauds the measures Obama took last week, but she says there is still work to do — getting the Paycheck Fairness Act passed, for example — and it's work that the next president will likely have to take on.

Her pick to assume that mantle? Hillary Clinton. She held back announcing her endorsement until Friday. "I thought it was a significant day, the seventh anniversary of the Ledbetter Bill. Sen. Clinton at the time was a sponsor and co-sponsor of the bill," she says.

Ledbetter says Clinton was with her from the the moment Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg challenged Congress to pass a bill that would ensure what happened to Ledbetter would never happen again, all the way through to its signing.

Along the way, Ledbetter lost her husband to cancer. She says the first call she got after the funeral was from Clinton. (The second and third were from Barack and Michelle Obama, she says.)

"These people are understanding," she says. "They understand where the middle class and people like myself grew up and live, and the struggles that we have."

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