I experienced Deja Vu as I listened to one of the addresses the other night on the televised Democratic Convention. The story of a woman “hitting the glass ceiling” when she could not be promoted to a job position but yet she was responsible for training the men who were promoted to this position hit me like a ton of bricks, resurfacing memories of frustration and humiliation.
Back in 1971 I had just gotten my bachelor’s degree and had found it difficult to get any employment except for low-paying clerical work. I took a job as a receptionist in the district office of a large, national manufacturing company. In less than two weeks I was given additional job responsibilities (but no extra pay) when I became the assistant to the order desk manager.
About a year after starting my job, an opening in the same company became available in a sub-office of the company District in another state. The job reported to the district order desk manager (just as I did) and the functions were what I was currently performing in the district office, but the job had a fancier title and a salary of $300 more per month. Wow! Was I ever psyched. I knew the job functions, my husband was finishing his degree, we could relocate and it seemed like a no-brainer that I should apply and ultimately get the job. Wrong assumption!
Yes I applied for the job, but got turned down. The reason I was given was that “this job is not for a woman.” No matter what arguments I made….knowing the product line, the company, and performing the job functions competently for a year …..could change management’s view. The next humiliation was when the new hire, a male who had no job experience with the company, no experience with the product line or supply chain management, appeared at my office to be trained by me for his new job. Any illusions that I may have held about gender and pay equity quickly vanished.
So it was deja vu for me when I heard a similar story given at the Democratic Convention the other evening. And what does that story and my story have to do with today? Plenty!
You might think that my story is 40 years old and that gender and pay inequity was wiped out a long time ago. Guess again….not so. At every educational level women continue to earn less than similarly educated men. In a study conducted by the American Association University Women, the data showed that ten years after graduation the pay gap widens. For example, in engineering and architecture there is parity in wages one year after graduation, but after ten years women earned only 93 percent of their male counterparts. And in business and management the pay gap was even wider with women earning 69 percent of men’s wages compared to 81 percent one year after graduation (see Invest in Women Invest in America at http://www.jec.senate.gov/public/?a=Files.Serve&File_id=9118a9ef-0771-4777-9c1f-8232fe70a45c ).
The issue of pay inequality is complex and requires action on several fronts. Federal and state governments, employers, and women themselves are essential players in breaking down barriers that are holding women back.
One of government’s significant roles in breaking barriers is establishing policy and passing legislation that dismantles discriminatory practices. The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed by President Obama in January 2009, is an example of this kind of action.
The law is named for Lily Ledbetter who faced pay discrimination and as a result championed women’s rights. It wasn’t until near her retirement that Ledbetter discovered that she was a victim of pay discrimination for almost 20 years, making significantly less than her male counterparts.
Upon discovering the pay inequity, Ledbetter decided to sue and initially won her case at the Federal level. However the Goodyear Company appealed the case and it went to the Supreme Court and the company won. The Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, interpreted the 1964 Civil Rights Law 180 day statute of limitations as beginning on the date the employer makes the initial discriminatory wage decision, not the date of the most recent paycheck.
So Lilly Ledbetter pressed on to get the law changed. Her perseverance resulted in an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that superseded the Supreme Court’s decision. That amendment guarantees individuals the right to file an equal-pay lawsuit, expanding the 180 day statute of limitations for filing, by resetting the statute with each new paycheck affected by the discriminatory action
Pay inequity not only hurts women immediately, but it also adversely impacts them throughout their lives. It dogs a woman through to her senior years because there is a trickle effect over her lifetime. Lower pay impacts a woman’s retirement savings, 401K, and her social security benefits. Women seniors depend on social security benefits more than men because many times they have no other retirement income and, because women on average live longer than men, they depend on social security benefits longer than men. However, on average, women’s social security benefits are significantly lower than men’s due to lower lifetime earnings. The result is that many senior women live below or near the poverty level. (See Invest in Women Invest in America – Report by the Majority Staff of the Joint Economic Committee at http://www.jec.senate.gov/public/?a=Files.Serve&File_id=9118a9ef-0771-4777-9c1f-8232fe70a45c ).
The point of my story is this. The Lilly Ledbetter Act is a huge win for women and others who face pay discrimination. What happened to me in 1971 was that I was young, unaware, and didn’t know where to turn for help. When you don’t know your rights, you can’t exercise them. Women need to understand, stand up for their rights and advocate for themselves and others.
And part of advocating for ourselves is also knowing who is advocating for us. For more information on the Lilly Ledbetter Act, what it is, its history and who advocated for women see:
http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/111/s181 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilly_Ledbetter_Fair_Pay_Act_of_2009To hear Lilly’s story see: