Women in the Workplace: When Will the Promise of the Law Become a Reality?

 After nearly two decades at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Lilly Ledbetter received an anonymous note that left her feeling “nothing short of a sense of desperation.” Someone had scribbled the names of four managers, including Ms. Ledbetter, and their salaries in black ink on a torn piece of copy paper. Ms. Ledbetter made less money — a lot less money — than the men. Ms. Ledbetter got the message that, at Goodyear, women weren’t as valuable as men because, as the stereotype goes, it’s not where women belonged.

Grace and Grit ThumbnailIn her memoir, Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond (with Lanier Scott Isom), Ms. Ledbetter details the rough working conditions at Goodyear. There were the environmental hazards and risks everyone experienced, such as the rubber poisoning that caused blisters on workers’ skin, and then there were the limitations and the hostile work environment that the female employees endured. Ms. Ledbetter and other women suffered relentless sexual harassment, including quid pro quo requests to visit the Ramada Inn after work, groping, and sexist pranks. They also bumped into hidden barriers that impeded their professional and financial advancement. These challenges jeopardized Ms. Ledbetter’s financial security and took a toll on her mental and physical health and on her relationship with her family.

With these experiences, and newly aware of the pay disparity between herself and her male peers, Ms. Ledbetter walked into the local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office and started the process that resulted in a lawsuit against Goodyear for sex-based wage discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This lawsuit led to a high profile U.S. Supreme Court opinion and ultimately, an Act of Congress to reaffirm her rights. (The Court opinion did not address the Equal Pay Act, a law that, coincidentally, turns fifty-years-old today; Ledbetter started out her lawsuit with a claim under the Equal Pay Act, but the District Court dismissed that claim while allowing the Title VII claim to proceed to trial. The Equal Pay Act is narrower than Title VII.)

The case is Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007), in which Justice Alito, writing for himself and the four other conservative Justices (and thus a 5-4 majority of the Court), sided with Goodyear, reversing a jury verdict in her favor. The slim majority of the Court concluded that Ms. Ledbetter’s claim was “untimely.” They decided that if an employee doesn’t file with the EEOC within 180 days of the initial discriminatory pay decision then they can’t ever bring a claim, even if the effects of that discrimination continue afterwards, like how Ledbetter’s lower pay continued for years, and continues today in her pension calculation.

Justice Ginsburg, the only sitting female Justice at the time, wrote a powerful dissent, explaining how the majority veered away from the view of Title VII that is “more faithful to precedent, more in tune with the realities of the workplace, and more respectful of Title VII’s remedial purpose.”

Thankfully, Ms. Ledbetter and her allies continued to fight for an honest and fair interpretation of Title VII, and got Congress to reverse the Supreme Court by passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. President Obama signed it into law on January 29, 2009 (it was the first bill he ever signed as the President). This law provides that the statute of limitations for filing a pay equity lawsuit, which is either 180 or 300 days depending on the state where the discrimination occurred, resets with each new paycheck, no matter how long ago the discriminatory pay decision was made. That’s the way it was in most parts of the country before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and Justices Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas got ahold of it.

This law is a step in the right direction. It makes it less likely that employers like Goodyear can get away with discriminating against their employees simply because they’ve succeeded in concealing it.

While there are more legislative changes that need to take place to address sex discrimination in the workplace, we need more than good laws. Fifty years after the Equal Pay Act, 49 years after the Title VII, 41 years after Title IX, and 35 years after the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, women remain second class citizens in the workplace. We continue to make less money for the same work (nationally, 77 cents for every dollar men earn); we remain concentrated in lower wage jobs; we endure sexual harassment; and, we are terminated or passed over for promotions because we are pregnant or because employers assume we will be someday.

It’s a change of attitudes we need in this country. We need employers who value their female employees as much as their male employees; we need people to realize that women belong in the workplace just as much as men do, and that men must also shoulder family responsibilities. It starts at home, when children are young. It starts with little girls pretending to be Batman and little boys reading Fancy Nancy.

 That’s when the promise of the Equal Pay Act, Title VII, Title IX, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act will finally become a reality.


  1. Cases like Ledbetter’s are clear. Broad statistics aren’t. If women did the same work for less pay in every industry, all companies would be women-only. Companies don’t like men. They like profit.

    Women, more often than men, chose life-balance choices that limit their careers. I am one of those men who’s benefited from the women’s movement. I was a single dad with two girls for a decade. My choice to take them to doc appointments and meet with teachers and spend time with them in the evenings meant I got passed over for promotions, sometimes by women — and that’s fair. I didn’t put in 60 hour weeks, and they did.

    Women in most industries in America who make those sacrifices make it to the exec board. Most aren’t willing to do that.

    And neither am I. 🙂

    It’s about choices. Thanks to the women’s movement, I at least got to keep my job as a single, fulltime parent. My dad didn’t have that option, when he divorced his first wife in the 1960s. He just sent checks and saw the kid twice a month.

    1. Yes, companies like profit, but they seem willing to spend more on male workers because execs perceive men as more valuable and capable. The truth is not no one is paid well at these companies (in comparison to what the top makes), but women are often paid worse. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I believe that a byproduct of women’s rights has been fairness for everyone (for example, a major goal has been to have gender neutral laws that produce fairer workplaces that benefit all workers).

  2. As always, great informative post! I definitely agree that the biggest changes will come when the next generation of kids grows up, hopefully more predisposed towards gender equality. I do think things are getting better, but as you said, we still have a long way to go. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you! I certainly hope that the next generation is more predisposed towards gender equality. I tend to think things are getting better, too.

  3. Remarkable that 50 years of discrimination law hasn’t done the job. By way of comparison, our small jurisdiction (Jersey, Channel Islands) has only just passed an enabling law for the introduction, gradually, of anti-discrimination regulations. There have been none such up until now. Whilst it is recognised that such law is necessary in the modern era I’m not sure that it will result in seismic changes. Time will tell.

    1. That’s interesting. I hope the changes in the law reflect changes in societal attitudes that produce fairer working conditions. A well-drafted law is only as good as its enforcement, and unfortunately, certain judges out there have eviscerated some of our most important anti-discrimination laws in the United States. The Ledbetter example isn’t the first time Congress had to fix the Supreme Court’s mistakes, but they usually don’t intervene.

  4. I’m a sucker for anything feminism and law related, so this looks right up my alley. When I first started reading the synopsis, I kept thinking – why isn’t she suing under the Equal Pay Act?! The law is so far behind our actual needs and too many workers (female and otherwise) suffer in silence through discriminatory practices.

    1. Yes, far too many workers suffer in silence. I had been familiar with legal implications of the Ledbetter case, but I hadn’t known that much about what happened to Ms. Ledbetter until I read the memoir. I’m glad I read it. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Same job, same pay. Well does it count in ability to complete the work in a equal way too? Some folks, men or women are just not as good as others. I was lucky in my job as an architect in a “man’s field” that I received a higher pay (by thousands) than a couple of the guys that were there long before me, but essentially doing the same work. My pay was exposed and it created a really big problem. But like being an attorney, it is based on billable hours and wins. Wins in my case was proposals/designs that turned into jobs. I was just faster and better at it than the others. So how does ability play in?

    1. Hi Donna! That’s a good question. In general, these anti-discrimination laws allow employees to be treated differently (such as by being paid more than others) if the difference in treatment is based on a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason that isn’t pretext (like ability, merit). However, assessments of an employee’s “merit” are sometimes tainted by sexism, racism, ageism, or some other form of discrimination.

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