BWLN symposium commemorates 10-year anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

Ten years ago, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed into law, guaranteeing the rights of workers to challenge unlawful pay discrimination. On January 28, the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network hosted a symposium to mark the anniversary of the passage of the legislation—and to assess the state of pay equality today. In addition to panel discussions on fair pay and salary negotiation moderated, respectively, by Professors Deborah Archer and Florencia Marotta-Wurgler ’00, the event featured a keynote conversation between Professor Melissa Murray and Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. 

In their conversation, Murray and Graves spoke about Lily Ledbetter’s path to the Supreme Court and the legacy of her fight for pay equality. In 1997, Ledbetter was a 19-year Goodyear Tire & Rubber employee who discovered from an anonymous note that she was receiving lower pay than the men she was supervising. She ultimately filed a lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Goodyear under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, arguing that the company had discriminated against her based on her gender. 

In 2007, the Supreme Court decided against Ledbetter in a 5-4 ruling on the grounds that her claim was not filed within 180 days following the discriminatory salary decision, as required by Title VII; however, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored a dissent that encouraged the US Congress to address this inequity through legislation. In 2009, after Congress followed her suggestion, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first piece of legislation that President Barack Obama signed. The act amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so that the 180-day statute of limitations resets every time the worker receives a paycheck affected by a discriminatory salary decision. 

The law brought a shift in American culture, Murray said: “We got the start of a really rich and deep conversation about pay inequity,” she said. 

However, Graves noted that Ledbetter found out only at the end of her career that she had been paid less than her male coworkers. While her case ultimately influenced congressional legislation, she did not receive restitution for the years of pay discrimination. “Her decades of unfair pay are showing up in her retirement,” said Graves. “Because she lost in the Supreme Court… Lilly Ledbetter is never going to get that money back.”

In the years since the passage of the act, there has been continued movement towards fair pay, Graves said. One advancement, she said, is that many states, including New York, have passed legislation barring employers from asking prospective employees for salary histories; this prohibition can prevent a past instance of discriminatory pay from following a woman throughout her career. More recently, Graves said, the #MeToo movement has provoked conversation on how workplace harassment—which she described as “an everywhere problem”—contributes to continued pay inequality. 

“When we launched Time’s Up, one of those rare things happened, where you had a group of leading women with a lot of platform, and huge microphones, aligning themselves with workers that had organized across a range of sectors for a really long time,” she said. As a result of some of these efforts, she noted, this year for the first time a national domestic worker bill of rights is expected to be introduced in Congress, cosponsored by Representative Pramila Jayapal and Senator Kamala Harris. “That idea—that you can continue to organize across privilege—is one that has been really exciting for all of us,” she said.

Watch video of the keynote discussion with Professor Melissa Murray and National Women’s Law Center President Fatima Goss Graves:

Watch video of the panel on fair pay:

Watch video of the panel on salary negotiation:

Posted February 14, 2019