Her Paycheck Was 40 Percent Less Than Her Male Peers. All About Lilly Ledbetter’s Fight for Fair Pay

Her Paycheck Was 40 Percent Less Than Her Male Peers. All About Lilly Ledbetter’s Fight for Fair Pay

By Taylor Cromwell

Apr 7, 2018

Equal pay for equal work. It's really that simple.

Yet somehow in 2018, we're still only talking about equal pay. That's because on average women still earn about 80 cents to every dollar that a man makes—and the numbers get even worse for women of color. As we see companies and advocates continue to fight for pay parity, for Equal Pay Day, we're recognizing one of the trailblazers who helped pave the way.

Lilly Ledbetter, the legendary plaintiff in the landmark Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. fair wage case, has been a crusader in the fight for equal pay for more than 30 years. Born in Jacksonville, Ala., Ledbetter worked her way up at Goodyear, where she was a supervisor for more than 19 years.

As part of her contract, Ledbetter was forbidden to discuss details of her pay with other employees. As she approached retirement in 1998, however, an anonymous tipster alerted her to an alarming fact: Despite receiving a "Top Performer" award in 1996, she had been making far less than her male colleagues for the entirety of her employment.

The only woman area manager at the time, her pay was almost 40 percent less than her peers.

"For many, many years, I was paid below the minimum for the job that I was doing. It short-changed my family then, and I'm short-changed today," she told MAKERS. "I would be a second-class citizen, as far as my income, for the rest of my life."

Outraged, Ledbetter made a formal complaint against Goodyear with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. After the company tried to discipline her by assigning her to manual labor, Ledbetter filed a discrimination suit and was awarded approximately $3.3 million in damages (later reduced to $360,000 because of a law limiting a company's liability for damages.)

Goodyear, however, appealed and the case ended up in the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 in favor of the tire company, saying that Ledbetter had missed the statute of limitations—then, only 180 days from her first paycheck that fell short of equal pay—to file a discrimination suit.

The Court ruled that her claim was "untimely" under the current law, which required a complaint to be filed within 180 days.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg led the dissenting opinion on the ruling, arguing that pay disparities are different from other types of discrimination that are easier to identify.

Following the Supreme Court decision, Ledbetter has focused on ensuring that other women won't have to deal with the same inequities she faced.

In 2009, President Barack Obama made the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first official legislation that he signed upon taking office. The bill expands the window of opportunity to file a formal complaint so that an employee can bring forth violations within 180 days after each paycheck affected by a discriminatory action, rather than just the first one.

Though Ledbetter will never see her compensation from Goodyear, she's satisfied with the legacy she leaves behind. "I'll be happy if the last thing they say about me after I die is that I made a difference."

Learn more about Ledbetter's incredible story and hear from more MAKERS who advocate for equal pay.

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