The annual hooplah over Equal Pay Day is over. At gatherings around the country last month, politicians and activists alike decried the persistent 20% plus pay gap between men and women. Now what? Back to work with our heads down as usual?
Not if you’re Lilly Ledbetter.
The namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act—the first bill President Barack Obama signed into law while surrounded with the smart political optics of Ledbetter, bipartisan members of Congress, and other women leaders in red power suits—knows this:
- Securing fairness and equality in compensation requires each woman to be persistently aware of what she’s worth and stand up for herself in the workplace.
- Securing fairness and equality in compensation is a long haul process that requires changes to laws and policies so the system is fair to all.
The personal and the political are, as usual, intertwined.
Sure, negotiation expert Victoria Pynchon can coach you on how to negotiate compensation more effectively for yourself. And when I speak and teach about my book No Excuses and its 9 Power Tools, I emphasize #3—use what you’ve got—to help women identify just how much power they have in their own hands, including the power to make changes in their paychecks.
And sure, as the Daily Muse pointed out, it’s good that the U.S. Department of Labor held an Equal Pay App Challenge seeking an app to educate people about the persistent problems of equal—or rather, unequal—pay.
But clearly these individual actions, as important as they are, constitute isolated drops in the deep blue ocean of needed systemic change.
Ledbetter’s new memoir, Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond, takes the personal and weaves it together with the political as she describes how she became a leader in the fight for equal pay.
The retired Goodyear Tire Company executive reveals how she discovered she’d been paid less systematically for 30 years because of her gender, began advocating for herself with her employer, and then realized she had a larger cause working for equal pay on behalf of all women through the courts and the legislative process.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act was needed to overturn the 2007 Supreme Court decision that nullified Ledbetter’s previously successful legal challenge to Goodyear, thus making it harder for women—and all employees—to pursue federal claims of pay discrimination.
Yet as Ledbetter explains in this radio interview with The Women’s Eye, her namesake law simply put women back where they had been before she filed her lawsuit.
“Women are still lagging far behind,” she says. “You should expect and get a good day’s pay for a good day’s work.”
Although the 2007 law restores workers’ ability to sue if they believe they have been discriminated against in pay, it doesn’t solve the underlying difficulty for employees to know whether they’ve been treated unfairly to begin with.
That’s why Ledbetter’s now fighting for the next step—passing the Paycheck Fairness Act.
The Paycheck Fairness Act has been called the 21st century fix for 20th century laws. According to the American Association of University Women— which has been a leader in equal pay advocacy—the Paycheck Fairness Act, a much needed updated of the 47-year-old Equal Pay Act, is a comprehensive bill that would create stronger incentives for employers to follow the law, empower women to negotiate for equal pay, and strengthen federal outreach, education and enforcement efforts…the bill would also deter wage discrimination by strengthening penalties for equal pay violations and by prohibiting retaliation against workers who ask about employers’ wage practices or disclose their own wages.
Washington beltway rumor has it that the Senate Democratic majority will bring up Paycheck Fairness in the next week or two, in an effort to solidify their party’s electoral advantage with women while further eroding women voters’ support for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Blocked by Republicans in 2010 when it was last considered, the bill has been neither endorsed nor opposed by Romney.
AAUW’s Government Relations Director Lisa Maatz has concerns about that strategy: “It’s always good to see our priority issues in the national spotlight, and there now seems to be a growing call in the Senate to bring up the Paycheck Fairness Act for a vote. It would be useful for voters to know exactly where our lawmakers and candidates stand on this critical issue. But I must also say that I’m not sure it helps our cause if equal pay simply becomes partisan cannon fodder in this year’s elections, with little actual effort made to close the gap.”
I think Ledbetter would agree with me that forcing the issue is a leadership act and might be the only thing that can help the fair pay cause by making voters aware of where the candidates stand so they can vote accordingly.
Whatever happens, women and men who believe in fair pay will need plenty of Lilly Ledbetter’s courage, grace, and grit to prevail.
I’ll be tracking and continuing to write about Paycheck Fairness here, so stay tuned.
This article originally ran in a blog post for FORBESWOMAN. Check it out here.