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Acclaimed Champion of Equal Employment Rights for Women to Speak at Women’s Leadership Forum in January

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Dec 14, 2018

Lilly Ledbetter
Lilly Ledbetter

Lilly Ledbetter, who will present a speech on transforming workplace culture at the NYSSCPA’s Women’s Leadership Forum on Jan. 18, 2019, made headlines when she took her employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, to court over years of pay discrimination. While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against her, holding that her claim was time-barred, the aftermath prompted the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law in 2009. That law provides that each discriminatory paycheck, rather than the original decision to discriminate, resets the 180-day limit to file a claim. Since then, Ledbetter has been a passionate advocate for women in the workplace, particularly where it concerns pay transparency and equality. She took the time to talk to The Trusted Professional about the current state of affairs for professional women, as well as their ongoing challenges. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Compared to the time when you were a manager at Goodyear, how would you assess the current state of women in the workplace today, from what you have been able to observe? Where do you see real progress being made?

I’ve seen real progress through the Ledbetter case and all the fallout from it. This woke the country up, woke a lot of people up around the world, and it has made a difference in a lot of companies, a lot of states. Not near enough yet, but much progress has been made. One of my most recent experiences was being in New Jersey when the governor there signed the equal pay law, which also included a lot of other benefits in the state for families. I was in Delaware when they signed an equal pay law, too. So many states have passed these bills and can enforce them and follow up and make sure that people are adhering to equal pay and benefits treatment of women and minorities. I just hope the states are able to maintain these for many, many years.

What new challenges do women face today that they didn’t need to worry about before, in terms of discrimination and harassment? How has the nature of discrimination and harassment changed?

One thing that has held women back for so many years—and this hasn’t changed a great deal—is the fact that when they have a good job, a job that they like, a job that pays out benefits—even though they don’t understand oftentimes that they’re not being compensated what they should—they’re afraid of losing that if they speak up. This problem was great before, but I think it’s even greater today because jobs that are really good out there in the market are so competitive. I know some employers say to their people that if they don’t want to do the job, there are 10 people waiting in the wings, so you know this has never changed; it’s always been like that, to some extent, and it makes it very hard for women to speak up.

Over the years, we have seen firms implementing all kinds of programs and initiatives to address the sorts of issues you faced at Goodyear. In your view, which interventions have tended to be the most successful, and which ones are usually dead ends?

A lot of companies will put in programs and procedures that could work beautifully, but they never do anything about it, they don’t follow through, they don’t enforce. In my case, in the early ’80s, the company went to what they called a pay-for-performance system, where we were supposed to be evaluated annually. [They were supposed to say], “Are you doing well or you should improve here”? Or “That was a great job, and this is where you’re at, and this is where your pay is based, what your raises are based on.” Well, I was there almost 20 years and I had three evaluations during those 20 years, and those only came about when they were having a salaried layoff. So this is what I’ve seen: They put into place a program to make sure things are better, but they don’t measure or follow through, and the program gets worse.

To what degree is the onus on the individual to “lean in” and advocate for herself, and to what degree is it on the organization to change policy or culture?

It’s a lot [on the companies], especially at large companies. And when the large companies do it and when the smaller companies, individually owned companies, see it work so beautifully, then they will start following suit. And that’s what we need because the shortchanging has gone on for so many years. What I learned—not only in my case and experience—was how shortchanged so many people are. And this affects your retirement. That’s what upset me so much when I saw the difference [in salary] in the company I worked for. They said, “If you discuss your pay, you will not work here,” so no one ever discussed their pay, and I had no way of knowing. I never had any idea what anyone else got, and had no way of finding out because it was never published. If [employees] have the knowledge they can work with, they can do something about their pay, they have a choice.

Firm-level policies, such as family leave or child care, are one thing. Cultural issues, such as thinking someone taking family leave is less loyal to the organization, or that child care is some special privilege, are another. How much of the problem can be addressed through firm policies and how much can only be addressed through cultural changes?

I still believe that policy, especially with a large corporation, directs a lot of it and controls most of it, but the culture part is there because, for so many years, women and minorities were not put into managerial or top positions, and now it is still front-page news when a female is promoted or gets a top job, especially in a Fortune 500 company. I tell college girls today that there are so many trailblazing opportunities for each of you, because there are so many places women have not been.

How much of this problem is generational? Do you think things will improve as older leaders retire and younger ones take the reins?

I heard a prominent person giving a talk say that until women raise their sons to respect women and their decision making, [progress] will never happen. I’ve given this a lot of thought. But when I speak to groups, the men understand it, the men get it, and that’s one thing that helped the Ledbetter bill—the fact that men understood. And I go places and talk, and men come out of the audience and they say, “I’ve got three daughters, two granddaughters”; they get up and talk about their wives and daughters and mothers. When I went to lobby and testify for the bill, I’d go to offices and meet with the staff, and sometimes, there’d be young male lawyers, and when I’d share my story, in five minutes, tears would run out of their eyes, and they’d talk about their mothers working two jobs to send them to law school. They get it.

One of the big challenges to solving the problem is convincing people that there is a problem at all. That there is pervasive discrimination in our society—and our organizations—is still something certain people will dispute. In general, how have you successfully convinced skeptics that discrimination in the workplace is a problem that must be addressed?

This is my favorite question. When they tell me it’s a myth, I say, “Do the math.” You pick out any three women or minority persons you want, and compare their pay to their co-workers’. Or even just pick one out! Do the math! It’s there!” And they just don’t want to face it. They really don’t want to face it because it is a major problem, a stumbling block for this country. It affects the education of our youngsters; it affects our health. The females have got to have equal pay. It’s not a myth.

What advice would you give to a woman facing discriminatory treatment in the workplace today?

I still believe in the chain of command. You go to your immediate superior and discuss it with them, and if that doesn’t work, depending on company structure, you might need to go to the HR department or you might need to go over your immediate supervisor’s head to the next level. I’ve often found, in large corporations, that generally works better, since most HR departments don’t have a lot of power to change anything. If that doesn’t work, you still today have the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], but when you go to them, you still have to have some proof—everybody that complains is not a case, and definitely not a federal one, so it takes documentation. I’ve learned, through the years, that diaries kept off-workplace—making notes when you get home or after hours—they stand up in court. If you can get people to testify on your behalf, that’s a big plus. Find someone you can trust, who will help you and guide you, and share information.

I didn’t have a computer in the early ’80s; when I went to work for Goodyear, I didn’t even have a cellphone, but times have changed a lot. Young people today can Google, and they can go online and see what the rate is for, say, a CPA in Atlanta, Ga., and the cost of living there and what the near-base salaries usually start at, and they can check other companies. They can check 50 miles or 100 miles down the road and see what they’re paying—they’ve got all this information at their fingertips.


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