One On One

Lilly Ledbetter, the Woman Behind the Fair Pay Act

She didn’t set out to become the spokesperson for equal pay. But after a lifetime of hard work, Lilly Ledbetter decided to right a wrong that had been done to her and to so many women in the workforce.

Photo by Mark Wilson

Her fight for pay equity and women’s rights took a decade — ‘and a big dose of grit and stamina’ — and continues today. 

After decades at her “dream job” as an area manager and supervisor for Goodyear in Gadsden, Ala., Lilly Ledbetter retired from the company in 1998 — and promptly filed a lawsuit against her former employer. Someone had anonymously passed her a note alerting her to the fact that she had been paid 40 percent less than her male colleagues. “It was very humiliating,” she said in a recent interview, “to learn that I was being paid so much less than my white male peers for doing the exact same job and doing it well.”

Her case against Goodyear made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2007, the court narrowly held that employees may not bring suit under federal law unless they have filed a complaint with a federal agency within 180 days of receiving their first discriminatory paycheck. But then Congress took up her cause.

The first bill President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, in January 2009. It reinstated the long-standing practice of ensuring that women who are discriminated against have the right to sue as long as their unequal pay continues. President Obama said: “Lilly lost more than $200,000 in salary, and even more in pension and Social Security benefits — losses she still feels today. She could have accepted her lot and moved on. But instead, she decided that there was a principle at stake, something worth fighting for. Her journey took 10 years, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

While Ledbetter lost the case against Goodyear on appeal — that was the decision upheld by the Supreme Court — the experience inspired her to become a spokesperson for equal pay.

The Lilly Ledbetter Act makes clear that pay-discrimination claims on the basis of sex, race, national origin, age, religion, or disability “accrue” whenever an employee receives a discriminatory paycheck, as well as when a discriminatory pay decision or practice is adopted, when a person becomes subject to the decision or practice, or when a person is otherwise affected by the decision or practice.

From her humble beginnings — as a child, Ledbetter grew up in a house with no running water or electricity, and picked cotton on her grandfather’s farm in Possum Trot, Ala. — to her namesake bill, Ledbetter’s journey required the kind of qualities she identifies in the title of her book, Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond. I caught up with her on the five-year anniversary of President Obama’s signing of the bill.

Your book Grace and Grit is such a compelling read and appropriately titled. Can you talk about how you gained the level of confidence you needed to be such a trailblazer?

Grit came because I felt lucky to be born and reared in a time when women were ready to break through and get jobs that had been denied them previously. So many good jobs were available that women should have. I was at the right place at the right time for women. I was only one of a few women with a management job at Goodyear. I was proud of that. But when things got rough, other women who were accomplished applied to different organizations and moved on to avoid the many challenges in their current positions.

I was 39 years old when I signed on with Goodyear. By the time I realized how bad the environment was [for women], I was in my mid-40s and had many bills to pay. I had no choice but to remain in my job to supplement my husband’s income. I worked a lot of hours — including overtime — and that’s where the grit came from. I needed a big dose of grit and stamina to stick with it and not give up.

All through the years, I had no idea that I was compensated less than my male counterparts. One day after 19 years on the job, someone slipped me an anonymous note telling me that I was paid less than the men doing the same job. It turned out that there was a 40-percent spread [in my compensation] as compared to men.

I sprang into action. I could not stand by any longer and take all the abuse. Alabama never had a case like this, and what passed was a landmark bill. Also, it is a rare thing to have a law named for a person. In Alabama, I’m the only one with that honor. In fact, I believe there are only 35 laws in the U.S. named after an individual, and I’m proud to be among them.

What have been the most significant changes since the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed five years ago? What remains to be done?

First of all, it woke people up across the nation to think about whether they were being paid fairly or not. So many people tell me that they filed a charge after they read about my situation. Some got a fantastic amount of money and retired. Some stayed in their jobs because they loved their work but just wanted to receive fair pay.

I never will forget a cab driver calling me “the fair-pay lady” and thanking me for helping his wife get equal pay for equal work and back pay when she filed a claim. This unfair situation runs the gamut of everyone in society who has been discriminated against in the workplace.

The ruling in my case meant that after you got the first discriminating paycheck, you only have 180 days to file a suit. How could I have filed a charge if I didn’t know I was being discriminated against until 19 years later?

What are the most critical things employees should do to ensure that they are getting equal pay for equal work?

Employees need to speak up and encourage their employers to look at policies and procedures to make sure they are fair and that the organization is doing the right thing. I always believed that if women are included in the workplace and the workplace provides a good operating atmosphere, organizations are more likely to succeed by being able to offer better products/services and generating a larger net profit. This only happens if they treat people right.

Not knowing the reality of the workplace, many people — especially young workers — are unaware that we don’t have equal pay for equal work. Job seekers need to do their homework before considering a position. The Internet provides so many opportunities to learn about organizations. Look for organizations that care about treating families well and women equally. Compare jobs. Take courses offered by the American Association of University Women and others on how to negotiate fair pay. Find out how frequently organizations give raises so that you can be on top of what is due you.

Some organizations think that women are grateful to be out of the house and are happy with whatever they get. That is not true or fair. Do research on compensation trends. Talk with people who work for the organization you’re interested in about its culture. Find out what it’s like to work for the organization. Search for a mentor immediately for guidance and to get off to a good start.

What are your thoughts on openness and transparency of compensation data in the workplace?

I support that idea, because employees have a difficult time getting exact data. I heard of so many cases of people who learn they’re making less than male professionals and are incredulous. People accept things the way they are far too often. Luckily, more and more won’t do that anymore and will take action.

There are so many cases and stories that I could tell. Some have started a foundation to help other women in the same situation. Organizations should post compensation and include cost-of-living raises. Many workplaces demand that employees not discuss their pay so employees are in the dark.

You obviously march to the beat of your own drummer. What advice would you give women about the balance of being your own person versus trying to fit into an organization?

Never forget where you came from. Never forget who you are. Be true to yourself. I was brought up an only child in a very poor county. I did not think that I should have had to pick cotton for so many hours or snap beans or shuck corn. It was cruel and inhuman treatment. It taught me to always look for something better. Improving needs to be what drives people.

You say that you “gave Goodyear the power to define you and your self-worth.” Can you talk about that, and how you took the bold step to define yourself?

The moment came when I saw the anonymous note. That was the most devastating time in my life. I was embarrassed. How could I face people in the factory by staying for my 12-hour shift? Yet, I couldn’t just walk out and quit. I thought about all the overtime hours I wasn’t paid for and how my retirement would be hurt.

I stood up for myself and then became even angrier when I heard about what other people were facing. I was not alone. People supported and helped me by providing plane tickets for my travel to Washington, D.C., and in many other ways. I was called the poster child for equal pay for equal work. I got men’s attention, too. They said, “I have a mother who wasn’t treated well, I have a wife who wasn’t treated well, and I have daughters who weren’t treated right.”

Goodyear gave me a management job, which I held for 19 years. I ran a good shift. I managed it like it was my own business. I did everything that benefited my company. Now what about me?

People in the meetings profession are always talking about life balance. As “light-footed Lilly,” you chose dancing as a new interest and became quite accomplished at it. Can you talk about what making time to do something you enjoyed meant to your life?

I always wanted to learn ballroom dancing. But I didn’t have the courage to get up and jump around with men — I knew that I needed lessons. So I started taking lessons and competed for eight years in competitions around the country. I concentrated on becoming the best, and liked the social part of dancing. Being a dancer was the turning point for me at Goodyear. When I had to telephone a male worker in the middle of the night to come to work, usually the wife answered. Especially with a name like Lilly Ledbetter, these wives got very suspicious. So I asked one of the janitors to get the men on the phone, and then I would speak to them.

After an article in the Goodyear employee newspaper included details about my ballroom dancing, it gave the wives something to talk to me about, so I was able to place these calls on my own.

Don’t just do your job. Get passionate about some hobby, and make time for it. Have something to talk about except for work. It makes you a more interesting person and increases your self-esteem.

Susan Sarfati, CAE

Susan Sarfati, CAE, is CEO of High Performance Strategies LLC.