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Choosing to Challenge

Lilly Ledbetter at the NYSSCPA Women’s Leadership Forum

If this was a movie, it might start, in 1998, with a woman coming into work and walking over to a cubby hole, maybe one with her name on it. When she reaches in and to get her mail, she spots a scrap of paper among the envelopes. She pulls out the piece, sees the name Lilly at the top, followed by the names of 3 men. Next to each name is a dollar amount, next to Lilly’s name is $3,727, one of the men has $4,286 next to his, and another has $5,236 next to his. Maybe we see an expression on her name, or maybe we don’t even look for her reaction (I haven’t decided yet) but it is then we go back to 1979, where the same woman is walking in to her first day of work with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

Lilly Ledbetter left her job as a manager at an accounting firm to pursue her dream, the love of radial tires. Even though her husband initially objected to this pursuit and even though the only women Lilly saw when she went to apply for a job were secretaries, she was undeterred and soon hired as one of the first women in a management position at Goodyear. When she started working at Goodyear, as they did with other employees, Lilly Ledbetter was told that she was prohibited from discussing her pay. She was told this even though, as is the general case, it was illegal to make such a prohibition. It took 19 years, and an anonymous note, for Lilly Ledbetter to discover that she had been paid less than her counterparts throughout her career with Goodyear. When she took her case to court, Lilly Ledbetter initially won her case but then Goodyear appealed. Their stance was not that they had not discriminated against Ms. Ledbetter but that she had taken too long to bring her claim forward. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where the Supreme Court ruled against Lilly Ledbetter in a 5-4 decision. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was unimpressed enough by this decision that she read her opinion from the bench.

At the New York State Society of CPAs, when we started planning our first Women’s Leadership Forum, we knew we wanted to have a session that discussed pay and wondered who we might have. A committee member suggested Lilly Ledbetter and I thought (and stated) it would be amazing, but would she really come to our event? Well, she did, and the story she shared was even more powerful and instructive than what I had read. When Lilly Ledbetter looked at that piece of paper, she realized that the impact went way beyond the current pay discrepancy. The impact hit every single one of those years that her employer paid her less than her peers, while her boss told her that he didn’t think that a woman should be working there. The impact hit the pension she would be receiving when she retired. The impact was going to hit what she was going to receive in Social Security payments. The discrimination was not a point in time in the moment at her cubby hole, it was cumulative over 19 years and the ripples spread wide.

Because Lilly Ledbetter lost her case in the Supreme Court, while not disputing that they discriminated against her, Goodyear never had to compensate Lilly Ledbetter. Inspired by her case and by Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s powerful dissent, the first act signed into law by President Barack Obama was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Now the clock resets with each discriminatory paycheck and, in a work environment where the discussion of salaries is still frowned upon and it is often a mission requiring Sherlock Holmes-like skills to find pay data, it brings some comfort to know that, whenever it is that we get that torn piece of paper in our mailboxes, it won’t be too late.

As I mentioned, Lilly Ledbetter ultimately lost her case and Goodyear never had to make up in any shape, way, or form for their years of discrimination. Lilly did decide that she wanted to do what she could to make sure her fate would not be the fates of others facing pay discrimination. She decided to Choose to Challenge, not just for herself, but for us all. She opened the door so that the rest of us can challenge too. So when you think about the rights we now have to challenge pay discrimination, don’t forget, Lilly Ledbetter did that!