“Equal pay is by no means just a women’s issue,” President Obama declared on Day 10 of his historic presidency as he signed into law his first bill, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act . “It’s a family issue.”
Obama’s point, long missed or ignored by many employers, politicians and Supreme Court justices: there are children behind these numbers, entire families dependent upon mom’s salary. Our government’s reluctance to force companies to rectify pay inequities has hurt generations of women and children. The symbol of loss has been Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor at Goodyear Tire and Rubber’s plant in Gadsden, Alabama, from 1979 until her retirement in 1998. Ledbetter sued after she discovered that Goodyear had been paying higher salaries to her male counterparts for nearly 20 years. Goodyear’s discrimination cost Ledbetter more than $200,000 in salary, and more in pension and Social Security benefits – and then she had to pay to expose the discrimination. It took Ledbetter ten years to win her legal battle, which had to go to the Supreme Court and the White House before her voice was heard by the U.S. House and Senate and signed into law by President Obama.
Ledbetter is not alone, and The Fair Pay Act is far from merely a symbolic equalizer. We live in a country where women on average earn only 78 cents to the dollar vs. men doing the same work. Women of color earn even less. Studies at Cornell University have shown that the more children you have, the less a potential employer is willing to pay you – if you are a woman (if you are a man with children, your pay increases). In our avowedly capitalist country, money is a critical, objective measure of your worth, for better or worse. So despite all our cultural compliments about motherhood and apple pie, for decades women’s paychecks have declared: women and moms are worth less.
Only 16 years ago, as the first bill of his presidency, Bill Clinton signed into law the Family Medical Leave Act, which guaranteed that employees could take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for events like the birth of a child. Our country has come a long way in the past two decades. Unfortunately, as anyone knows who’s found her responsibilities dramatically increased or decreased following maternity leave, or faced dirty looks when she leaves to fetch a sick child from daycare, subtle and not-so-subtle “maternal profiling ” at work is pervasive and risky to fight.
Many of us have trouble negotiating a raise or a deadline extension to handle a family crisis. Where do you find the courage to tackle your company, your bosses, your colleagues, your culture? If you face discrimination at work, now you have the law, as well as Michelle and Barack Obama’s support. There are excellent legal advocates closer to cubicle level, such as legendary equal pay and gender equality advocates Joan Williams  at the University of California Hastings College of The Law and Cyrus Mehri at the Washington, DC firm of Mehri & Skalet . But you still have to muster the moxie to speak up for yourself and other women. Thank you, Lilly Ledbetter, for speaking up for all of us.