Editor’s Note: Lilly Ledbetter was the plaintiff in the Supreme Court discrimination case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., and her name is attached to the Fair Pay Act of 2009. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
I wish I could tell young women that they just need to focus on working hard and saving diligently and they will receive equal pay for equal work and be financially secure in retirement. After all, there are a few laws on the books about equal pay — one of them even bears my name: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was signed into law 10 years ago this week. But that isn’t how it works.
And the members of Congress introducing the Paycheck Fairness Act on Wednesday, January 30, know that and want to do something about it.
The young women I meet on college campuses and at rallies while I’m on the road sharing my pay discrimination story believe that when they get a job, they will get equal pay for equal work because the Equal Pay Act — the federal law prohibiting pay discrimination based on sex — has been the law for more than 55 years. They think that if they work hard they will be economically secure throughout their careers and after.
That is what I thought, too.
In the 1970s, I worked my way up to be hired as a manager at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. For nearly two decades, I would frequently work 12-hour shifts, seven nights a week. I regularly worked overtime. And I saved carefully for retirement. But my employer’s decision to pay me only a fraction of what male managers were getting condemned me not just to lower wages during my career, but for the rest of my life.
Those pay decisions made decades ago directly reduced my Social Security contribution and how much I was able to put into my retirement accounts. They determined what my retirement would look like and now, at the age of 80, 21 years into retirement, I can tell you, it hasn’t been easy.
I constantly worry about how I will pay my bills. This month has been rough: I had to call a plumber and then was told I needed to buy tires now that I was planning to buy in two months. How will I make the money stretch this month, how will I keep the power on, how will I keep the heat on?
While things have been challenging for me, especially now as a widow, for many others retirement can be impossible. Like women who worked in lower paying female-dominated jobs that pay less precisely because people think it’s just “women’s work,” and not worth much. And women of color and women with disabilities whose job opportunities and pay are often further cut not just by gender stereotypes but by additional forms of bias.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, a black woman, for example, typically stands to lose $946,120 over her career to the wage gap and would need to work 26 years longer than her male counterpart to make up that lost money.
This is the reality I feel the responsibility to share with the young women I meet across the country. While I was in their shoes decades ago, the reality of pay discrimination hasn’t disappeared.
One reason for that is our laws just aren’t good enough. Loopholes and inadequacies in the Equal Pay Act mean that pay discrimination persists throughout our economy. Even at the beginning of their careers, young women will typically earn less than their male colleagues performing the same job with the same education and experience. And because many employers still rely on job applicants’ salary history to set pay, they will be forced to carry these depressed wages throughout their career and into retirement. What starts as a small difference grows through the years.
I always tell young women they can’t assume they are being paid equal pay for equal work; they must make sure they are getting what they are entitled to. But when an employer forbids employees from discussing their pay that can be impossible. And when the law doesn’t clearly prohibit a practice like seeking applicants’ salary history, what can we do? Ultimately, it shouldn’t be on each of us to ensure employers are treating us fairly.
It’s time we strengthen our equal pay laws. I have spoken with advocates and lawmakers in states from Mississippi to Rhode Island and on both sides of the aisle who are addressing deficiencies in their equal pay laws. For example, seven states have already passed legislation forbidding employers from relying on applicants’ salary history. I am hopeful that states like Maryland, Rhode Island, and Illinois will join them this year.
But being paid equal pay for equal work shouldn’t depend on where you live. The Paycheck Fairness Act, sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, is being reintroduced with bipartisan support in Congress on Wednesday.
If passed, the bill will close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act, protect employees from retaliation for discussing their pay (a measure that would have helped me learn about and resolve my pay disparities years earlier), and limit the use of salary history in the hiring process. It will also require the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to collect compensation data from employers, helping increase pay transparency and uncover pay discrimination.
Our lawmakers owe it to the young women just starting to work, to those who are starting to calculate when and whether they will be able to retire, and to those of us living shortchanged retirements to deploy all the tools we can muster to close the wage gap.
Women and their families literally can’t afford to wait any longer.