One day in 1997, Lilly Ledbetter received an anonymous letter in the mail. That document would alter the course of history and women’s rights in the workplace.
Ledbetter recently spoke to Know Your Value’s Daniela Pierre-Bravo at the Forbes Women Summit about the note, her journey and how women can effectively stand up for themselves in the workplace — which Ledbetter ultimately did in a major way.
The note informed Ledbetter that she was being paid far less than her male colleagues who had similar or less seniority and experience at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, where Ledbetter worked as an area supervisor in Gadsden, Alabama. Upon further investigation, Ledbetter found that the anonymous information was true and startling: Ledbetter, who had been working at Goodyear for 19 years, was paid $3,727 per month. Meanwhile, the lowest-paid male area manager received $4,286 per month, while the highest-paid manager got $5,236. She was the only woman working as an area manager.
“I took a job that had normally been considered a man’s job. I don’t agree with that term,” said Ledbetter. “It’s a job. Whether it’s a man, African-American, Latino, heavy, skinny, whatever. If they’re the best qualified for that job, they should get it, and they should get the money to go with it.”
Thus began years of legal battles that climbed up to the Supreme Court. Ledbetter ultimately lost the lawsuit against Goodyear. However, Democrats in Congress as well as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The act makes it easier for victims of pay discrimination to present a case, whereas the statute of limitation previously favored corporations. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed under Obama in 2009.
“That was the most amazing feeling that I have ever had in my life,” said Ledbetter about the day the bill passed. “I would say it was almost like an out of body experience.”
Ledbetter was reimbursed for her lost wages, overtime and retirement pay because of the law being put in place.
But what about the many American women who are still making 80 cents to every man’s dollar? She had advice for women looking to stand up for themselves and receive equal pay.
1. Do a LOT of homework before starting a job.
These days, it’s far easier to research a company in advance of taking a job. Ledbetter did not have the advantage of the Internet when her suit was filed, but she advised women to utilize all the information that’s available.
“It’s critical that they find out and research the companies you’re about to go work for,” said Ledbetter. “They should make sure if they possibly can that they know where they stand with their peers and how they’re paid. Nowadays ... you can talk to and network and find out what the pay scale is and how employees like working for that corporation.”
2. Negotiate up front.
After finding out the pay scale at a company, new employees should negotiate for a fair salary that is representative of peer pay. They should do this up front, and not wait until later, or until after you’ve gotten settled.
“If you don’t get it up front, it’s gone and it’s gone forever,” said Ledbetter.
3. Prepare for repercussions.
Unfortunately, sometimes standing up for equal pay comes with repercussions, be it personal or professional. Ledbetter feared Goodyear’s repercussions against her, so she took a buyout, a move that she deeply regrets, and a move that may have hurt her case.
“I knew the repercussions would start and they would be tough ... so I took the early buyout, which my attorneys said was a mistake. I should have rode it out...I should have stayed.”
She had some personal fallout, and advocates weren’t always easy to come by.
“People don’t know the whole story. They don’t agree with you, they don’t like you, but they don’t want to find out. So you really find out who your true friends are.”
4. Know your advocates.
Despite some setbacks, Ledbetter had many advocates, including a very important one: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“Justice Ginsburg challenged Congress to take it up because she said ‘this injustice cannot stand because it would affect too many people in too many walks of life,’” Ledbetter recalled. “She told me that in the first three jobs she ever had, they told her ‘we’ll pay you less because you have a husband.’ And that’s not right ... She is very picky about the law. She wants it exactly like it’s written ... I wish we had more people in decision making that would do that.”
5. Save everything.
It’s important to save all documents and records if you plan to stand up for equal pay in the workplace.
“I had saved every negative and a lot of the other information that had come down the information line, and all the records I could get my hands on and that note,” said Ledbetter. “My attorneys said when I went to federal trial there was so much paperwork it would have been 10 stories high. So much has changed today.”