Meet the Woman Trying to Smash the Gender Pay Gap
“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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