Equal Pay Day — the day up to which the typical woman must work in a particular year to catch up with what the average man earned the previous year — always brings back a rush of memories. Not surprisingly, many of them I’d rather forget: the pit in my stomach, for example, that developed when I read the anonymous note left in my mailbox that told me I was being paid a fraction of what other, male supervisors at Goodyear were making. And when the Supreme Court denied me justice in my pay discrimination case.
(Some of them are happier memories, like when President Barack Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to ensure other women would not receive the same treatment.)
But this year, Equal Pay Day, which falls on April 10, has brought back a whole different set of memories:
“You’re going to be my next woman at Goodyear.”
“Oh, you didn’t wear your bra today.”
“If you don’t go to bed with me, you won’t have a job.”
Those words, spoken to me by one of my supervisors many years ago, still crawl through my ears and down my spine. I remember my fear, both for my personal safety and because if I lost my job, I didn’t know how I would pay my kids’ college tuition, our mortgage and other bills. I remember how that fear led me to keep a phone number for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission tucked in my pocket at all times, in case I needed legal help.
Almost two decades before I got the anonymous note about my unequal pay, I was sexually harassed at my job. I complained about the harassment to my human resources representative. I made it clear that I wanted to keep my job but be separated from my harasser. The representative said I should go home and stay there until an investigation was completed. He said that since my harasser had been at the plant for 30 years and had a good reputation, he would remain on the job during the investigation. “If he stays, I stay,” I insisted.
I stayed — and so did he. My harasser, as far as I know, never faced any consequences for how he treated me. But my life at the plant changed. Co-workers stopped talking to me. I had to work harder than ever to repair my reputation and not be seen as a troublemaker for speaking up about my right to do my job with safety and dignity.
These are memories that I don’t like to think about, much less speak about. But hearing the outpouring of #MeToo stories over the past several months, I have come to realize that my #MeToo story should be just as much a part of my fight to close the wage gap as my pay discrimination story.
Sexual harassment isn’t about sex, just like pay discrimination isn’t just about pay. Both are about power. They are clear evidence that too many workplaces value women less. That was true for me in the 1980s and 1990s when I worked at Goodyear, and it is still true today.
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It doesn’t surprise me that the National Women’s Law Center, which I’ve worked closely with since 2005 and which has been housing and administering the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund since January, says it has seen a surge not only in women seeking legal help for sexual harassment since the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke last October, but also in women seeking help to challenge pay discrimination. Some women are coming to the center with both of these claims. They are women who can’t get a raise because they refuse to go on a date with their boss. Women who report harassment only to be demoted and have their hours — and thus their pay — slashed. Women who are cut out of training and promotional opportunities for reporting harassment or refusing their boss’s advances.
When I am on the road, speaking and sharing my pay discrimination story with women’s rights groups, students and lawmakers, the women who come up to me after my speech don’t just tell me about how their male co-workers doing the same job are making more — they share stories of losing their job, being demoted or not advancing in the workplace because they didn’t submit to sexual harassment or because they reported it. Of being pushed out of higher-paying male-dominated jobs into lower-paying female-dominated jobs because of near daily harassment. Of how their productivity and health suffered.
All of this decreases women’s earnings relative to men’s, increasing gender pay gaps. In turn, when women are denied the pay we deserve for our hard work, when we have to fight for the raise our male counterpart gets automatically, when we struggle to pay our bills because we are being shortchanged at work, we are left more vulnerable to harassment, because we literally can’t afford to risk our paycheck by challenging it. It is a vicious cycle.
That’s why this year’s Equal Pay Day is not just about pay — to be honest, it never was. It has always been about calling out how our workplaces value women less.
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.