Thursday, January 29, 2009

Learning from Lilly Ledbetter

I asked a college class how many had heard of Joe the Plumber. Everyone raised their hands. Lilly Ledbetter? Not one hand went up.

In December I had the honor of sitting next to Lilly Ledbetter, plaintiff in a high-profile pay discrimination suit. We were both on a panel on fair pay the next morning at Hunter College. Here’s what I learned:
• She’s a person of strong faith, including faith in justice.
• Her husband grappled with four bouts of cancer (he has since passed away). He had to miss oral arguments in the Supreme Court because of radiation treatment.
• Lilly doesn’t mind saying that she’s 70 years old, that she was never in this for the money, that she thinks Rep. George Miller, a sponsor of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, is Hollywood handsome.
• She understands that unequal pay hurts not just women and people of color, but families and communities.
• She’s button-bursting proud of her four grandchildren and two children, especially her daughter who’s in HR at Blue Cross/Blue Shield and focuses only on positives when doing performance evaluations.
• For 19 years, Lilly Ledbetter got excellent evaluations managing a line on the night shift at Goodyear Tire Company in Birmingham, Alabama. She has no idea who slipped her a note informing her that for 17 of those years, she was paid much less than the other managers who were male (15-20% less than most, 40% less than some). There were two likely informants, men who’d mentored her, but one was in Texas and the other was dead. After Lilly got over the humiliation – “like you’ve fallen in a crowded room and you look to see who noticed,” she said – she decided she had to fight, even though she knew it would take years. Her motive was simple: As a government contractor, Goodyear knew the law. She wanted them to obey it.
• Just as she’d hoped, other women and an African-American man at Goodyear have received substantial raises because of her action. Recently forty executives from big name companies got on the phone with Lilly to ask her advice on ensuring fair pay in their companies.
• She loves talking to groups, especially young women, and hopes someone in Hollywood makes a film about her so others can learn from her story. (Some have suggested Glenn Close or Meryl Streep for the role. I told Lilly I’d like to see Sissy Spacek -- she’s got that southern accent and quiet grit.)

Other facts I already knew. Lilly had gone to the EEOC, who said hers was one of the worse cases they’d ever seen. She found a great lawyer and got support from women’s groups. The company appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where five of nine justices (surely they’ve lost the right to that name) decided that victims of discrimination must file a charge within 180 days of the first instance of discriminatory pay -- never mind that the company had prohibited employees from discussing salaries. I knew that members of Congress immediately introduced legislation to fix this. George Bush threatened to veto the measure, which was passed in the House, held up in the Senate. John McCain said he opposed it as a boondoggle for lawyers; Barack Obama said he’d be proud to make it one of the first bills he signs – and now he’s done just that.

Here’s what else I know: Passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act is a grand win, but only one small step toward fair pay. The EEOC will need adequate funding to enforce existing equal pay laws. And these laws address only part of the problem: treating women differently when they perform the same jobs as men. Most women and men don’t do the same jobs – and women’s jobs pay less just because women do them.

We need to revalue women’s work, remove the legacy of discrimination embedded in the market rate of those jobs. We need to end the motherhood penalty, so that no one is discriminated against because of caregiving responsibilities. Only when we have new rules that value families at work – policies like paid sick days and affordable family leave accessible to all – will we establish a framework for women to reach equity in employment, and men to reach equity in the home.

Thanks to Lilly Ledbetter and other women like her who found their voice and inspire the nation, we’re a lot closer to moving that agenda. We’ll know we’ve made it when the media pay as much attention to Lilly as they did to Joe the plumber.

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