WORKING WOMEN - THE CASE OF LILLY LEDBETTER
Thursday, September 4, 2008 5:20 pm
WORKING WOMEN - THE CASE OF LILLY LEDBETTER
Obviously, the nomination of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate by the GOP this week and Hillary Clinton’s primary run have focused attention on women voters, women workers and women as a recognizable demographic to be courted for the next sixty days. If statistics tell only a portion of the truth, women will be dropped like last week’s newspapers after November 4th.
The question is: Now that women are being courted before the election, will they go back to the good old days quietly after the election?
Most of us know that women earn less than men. Not everyone knows how long women's pay has stagnated.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, women’s overall income in the US was catching up with that of their male co-workers. More recently, it has stagnated… In 1995, a university trained woman earned 75.7 cents for every dollar a man earned. In 2005, it had fallen to 74.7 cents. During this same period, lower income woman continued to gain on their male peers, though very slowly.” The Futurist Magazine, May-June 2008
The magazine suggests that “women are less interested than men in working 70 hours or more per week during their prime reproductive years” and notes that a growing number of women are staying home to rear their children. Whether either of those assumptions is true or not, the perception persists that women aren’t really serious about working.
However, consider the case of Lilly Ledbetter. Ms. Ledbetter was an Alabama Goodyear employee, the only female supervisor, doing the same job as male supervisors. Ledbetter discovered only months before retirement that her pay was lower than her male counterparts. Her suspicions were confirmed by an anonymous note in her locker. The difference was substantial: She was earning $3,727 a month and the lowest paid male was making $4,286. The best paid male was making over $5,236.
After retirement, she sued in federal court, citing gender discrimination. She won at the trial court level, lost at the Circuit Court and lost in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found that she could not sue because she was untimely in bringing her claim. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a slim majority of five, found that the pay inequity dated from the first unequal paycheck – even though Ledbetter knew nothing about it. Legislation addressing Ledbetter’s case, while too late to help her, was passed in the US House of Representatives and defeated in the US Senate.
"This legislation clarifies that employment discrimination law should be interpreted the way courts have traditionally understood it – until the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a more restrictive interpretation in the 2007 Lilly Ledbetter vs. Goodyear decision. In this case, the Court ruled that plaintiff Lilly Ledbetter was not eligible for compensation despite years of being paid far less than her male peers and even some male subordinates. According the Court, unlawful discrimination had occurred only when her employer first set the discriminatory pay rate, even though Ledbetter had no way of knowing about it until years later. Under this ruling, since Ledbetter’s employer was able to conceal the discrimination for years and she did not find out about the discrimination until it was too late to file a complaint (within 180 days of the first discriminatory paycheck, according to the Court), she had no legal recourse. By reaffirming that a fresh discrimination offense occurs each time an individual is impacted by a discriminatory practice, including each paycheck that includes unfair compensation, this legislation effectively reverses the Supreme Court’s harmful decision and ensures that people subjected to discrimination in the future will continue to have effective recourse to the law". How Congress Voted
Ledbetter’s case demonstrates how even the seemingly clearest pay issues can become murky. Ledbetter clearly earned less than her male peers. She clearly was not staying home to rear her children. Despite her working conditions, Ledbetter became a statistic in the legion of women who earn less than their male counterparts. The issue for Ledbetter was not pay for work that was comparable to a man's, but work that was exactly the same work as a man's. Comparable pay is difficult because comparing a nursery worker, who earns little more than minimum wage to a truck driver, who earns substantially more than the minimum, involves evaluating positions that are more unlike than apples and oranges.
Futurist Magazine lists five fields where women have pay parity: hazardous materials waste removal, telecommunications line installers and repairers, meeting and convention planners and cafeteria workers. In most of these, women have broken into a traditionally men’s field.
College graduates earn significantly more than those without degrees. In the future, women may have a significant earning because 58% of college graduates are female.
The high profiles of a few women in politics didn’t change the pay issues of working women in the twentieth century (when a woman became Kentucky’s governor and the first woman was nominated for the office of vice president). What the effect of women competing on the national stage as candidates, advisors and pundits in the 21st century remains to be seen.
Daughters brought up to believe they are the equal to sons will be much less likely to suffer pay differences quietly. With a 50% divorce rate and more women choosing to remain head of household, the need to bring home as much bacon as one can stir up in the pan will only increase.
Lilly Ledbetter may have lost in the courthouse, but she will be remembered as one woman who didn’t stay quiet.