She was raised in a home without running water or electricity, became a rare female manager in a man’s industry in the 1980s, took a lawsuit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and had an equal pay law named after her.
Lilly Ledbetter has led an interesting life. And she has emerged as a historic figure in the world of people management. That’s thanks largely to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which loosened the time frame in which people could file pay discrimination charges in the wake of Ledbetter losing her Supreme Court case. Now 74 years old, Ledbetter recently spoke from her Alabama home with Workforce senior editor Ed Frauenheim.
Workforce: Some see you as heroine of equal pay, while others view you as an icon for excessive regulation and litigation. What’s it like to be at the center of such divided opinions?
Lilly Ledbetter: Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. But being a fighter for equal pay for equal work and women’s rights, when you’re talking about that, you’re talking about a family issue. Because every woman is working because they have a family. Even if it’s a single woman, it still touches family members—their brothers and their fathers.
It’s just an American right. This law for equal pay was signed into law by President Kennedy in 1963. The opponents of the Lilly Ledbetter equal pay law say this is a lawyer’s dream come true. This is not true. This is not true. [The] equal pay law has been on the books for almost 50 years.
I filed my charge in 1998 because I was not being paid according to the law. But very few people in my category file charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And even when they do file a charge, they often don’t follow through with a lawsuit. Because these cases are just like mine. They’re long; they’re drawn out. Corporations have more money than middle-class and lower-class people do. And it’s hard to find an attorney that will take your case either pro bono or on a contingency basis.
Some of the opponents have argued that this is just going to be a hardship on corporations. It is not. It is not. It is not.
Workforce: What was it like to be one of the few female managers at Goodyear in the 1980s and 1990s?
Ledbetter: That was a tremendous job for a woman. The best way I know to explain it is like coaching a softball team with youth. You’ve got all your players; you’ve got the enthusiasm. They know their job and you’ve got your schedule and you’ve got your equipment, which is your equipment and inventory.
When I was hired in 1979, I was kind of a unique person. I was on the night shift. And a lot of those men had never worked for a woman. I never had any trouble out of any of them. If one ever objected strongly, they would just look for another job when one would come open and move to another shift. That was all right. I understand that.
But when the men and the women would see that I would work or I would carry my fair share, they started from day one—or night one—calling me Miss Lilly. And I retired being called that. That showed respect. And that’s what I would tell them. You don’t have to like me, but you do have to respect me for the job I have, and I will treat you as fair as you will allow me.
Workforce: How have things changed in the workplace from the ’80s and ’90s to today regarding pay equality?
Ledbetter: Not enough. We still don’t have enough women at the top. They’re still being held back—and they’ve got great education. And we don’t have enough women in politics, in Congress, either the House or the Senate in Washington. And the corporate boards don’t have enough women or minorities on them to make a difference.
Things are changing. One of the things that makes me the happiest is to get invited to go speak to a group of new hires or a corporation about integrating women into their operations, and to encourage young high school and young college women and minorities to go into engineering, the sciences, mathematics—get those degrees. Companies are learning that the makeup of the workforce is so much stronger when they have both men and women.
The young men get it. I go to a lot of college campuses to talk. I’m almost as popular with the young men, because they talk about their mothers and their sisters—how they’ve been held back. I’ve heard so many examples. They understand when they get out of college, if they get married, they need a wife working, and they need her to be paid fairly too.
Workforce: What should employers know about equal pay?
Ledbetter: It’s very simple. If you treat people fairly and equitably, you’ve got nothing to worry about. And it’s also a win-win situation, because when employers make it pretty well-known that everybody’s being treated equitably and fairly for their work, they have a better team. They have people who are more enthused about coming to work. They don’t stay out of work. They can’t wait to get there. If it’s a service business, when you walk in it’s hard to tell who the owner or the manager is because of the other team people working so hard. And if it’s a manufacturing environment, they put out a better product—more productive, less scrap. And they don’t stay out of work. The absentee and the safety records are almost perfect. It’s just a ‘win’ situation for the families of this nation as well as the corporations and employers.
I’ve been to some places this year, where they’re in the process of changing their policies and procedures—they’re reviewing all of their people, even support people and secretaries—to make sure that everybody is treated equitably. And when these employees realize that everybody is being treated that way—and there’s no big dark secrets—they have a better team operation. It is just tremendous the difference it makes. And the service or the product is so much better. It is a ‘win’ situation.
And I can assure you the women and minorities across this nation, anywhere, they do not want to file an EEOC charge, and they don’t want a lawsuit. We all—each one of us—we’re simply working to support our families, educate our children and build a retirement so we can live in our later years and take care of ourselves.
Workforce: In the wake of the Lilly Ledbetter law, what else do you think is needed in terms of legislation?
Ledbetter: We need paycheck fairness. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa has a bill that we desperately need. It’s been around for 15 years. If paycheck fairness had been on the books in the early 1980s, I could have found out from a co-worker about my pay. Or my boss would have had more leeway to discuss my pay with me. The version of paycheck protection that I knew about four or five years ago would require employers just to post the changes in the top, and the mid and the bottom of their pay ranges. Then if I was below the minimum or I was sitting right there on the line, I could say, ‘Hey, employer, why am I so far down?’ And I asked this in the early ’90s. I asked my superior, ‘What can I do?’ I said, ‘If I’m not doing something I should, let me know. I’ve got to get my pay up. Because I’m looking at retirement in the near future.’ My superior wouldn’t tell me anything about how my pay compared to my co-workers.
Employers don’t have to do any of that.
The Ledbetter Law, it’s just giving you the right to file a charge and to sue your company if you find out that you’re being discriminated against.
Ed Frauenheim is Workforce’s senior editor. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.