Read the original story here in The Oregonian.
Pay-equity pioneer Lilly Ledbetter, whose name was on the first piece of legislation signed by President Barack Obama after he took office in 2009, stopped in Portland on Thursday.
Ledbetter was in town to deliver a keynote address to Portland State University’s Center for Women’s Leadership.
She is best known for suing her longtime employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., alleging that she was paid far less than her male counterparts during the nearly 20 years she worked there.
The U.S. Supreme Court nullified her $3.8 million jury award because she did not file suit 180 days from her first paycheck. Ledbetter argued, unsuccessfully, that she never knew she was being paid less until after she retired.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed by Obama on Jan. 29, 2009, redefined the starting point for discriminatory behavior as the last discriminatory paycheck – not the first.
Before her PSU talk, Ledbetter, a lifelong Alabama resident who just turned 76, sat down with The Oregonian for a conversation that ranged from her years working as a lower-paid manager for Goodyear to her view that working women in the U.S. are still being paid less than their male counterparts for doing the same work.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Oregonian: What is your reaction to the recent legislative failure of the Paycheck Fairness Act?
LL: I’m very disappointed. I don’t understand for the life of me how anyone can vote against something that will benefit the American family and, actually, American businesses. When people know they are treated fairly and equitably, they work faster, harder and are more productive.
The Oregonian: Do you foresee pay-equity issues playing a defining role in the November election?
LL: Absolutely, and it should, because what happened in 1998 and through the (court) discovery years, going to trial and on to the Supreme Court, we have not achieved very much. For women still to be earning 77 cents on average to a man’s one dollar shows we haven’t come very far. At this rate, it will take 45 years for women to achieve what men are making.
The Oregonian: The 23-cent pay gap between the genders remains controversial. Some say a variety of reasons, such as women going into lower-paying jobs and leaving the job force to raise children, explains most of it. Do you agree?
LL: No, that’s not true. In my case, for example, I had the exact same job men had and yet I was paid far less. This happens all the time, even in government jobs, where women are locked into jobs and told they can’t get promotions. But then a man will be hired, he’ll be trained by these same women and the man will go up from there. There’s no logical explanation for that.
The Oregonian: The court decision you lost must have cost you, on a personal basis, a lot of money, not only in back pay, but in retirement and other benefits. Are you ever resentful?
LL: No. I just continue each day to try to make a difference for everyone coming after me. But it did cost me and my family a lot. I think about what could have been for my family and what we did without. Even today, I do without simply because my income isn’t what it should be.
Oregonian: Did you ever envision yourself becoming a champion of the gender-pay cause?
LL: Never. I never planned to be doing this. When I started my 20 years at Goodyear, I’d already been at H&R Block for 15. I’d planned to work until 65, retire, clean out the garage and read all the books I never got around to.
The Oregonian: Do young women know who you are?
LL: Basically, most of them do. If they don’t know me, I’ll tell them. But it’s interesting. Many young women on college campuses and even those in the work force think they have equal pay because they’ve heard about a law passed 50 years ago requiring that. They think they have equal pay, but in reality, they don’t.
The Oregonian: What’s your schedule like these days?
LL: Pretty busy. I talk at colleges, to women’s groups, unions. I’m going to Ohio next week for a group that does lot of work with underprivileged families. I do a lot of graduation addresses. My message is always that what happened to me and my family should never happen to anyone in this country.
-- Dana Tims