Obama's Legacy: Working to Get Women the Pay They Deserve

Excerpted from A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama by Michael D’Antonio. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.


The work was physically demanding, and the overnight shifts, which were twelve hours long, would wreak havoc on anyone’s body. Then there was the harassment. Lilly Ledbetter was pawed and catcalled. One boss made it clear that she was to be his next sexual conquest because everyone at the plant expected it. When she rejected him, he told her that her job depended on her agreeing to have sex with him. Even the wives of her male coworkers harassed her. The intimidation included cut brake lines on her car. But not many places in the entire state of Alabama paid as well as the Goodyear Tire plant in Gadsden, so Ledbetter endured. She rose in the ranks, eventually becoming a supervisor. In 1996 Goodyear gave her a “top performance” award. She was, as she said, a “company person. I was true-blue.”

Mortgage payments and her children’s college tuition bills kept Ledbetter on the job for nearly twenty years. She sometimes wondered if her counterparts—all men—were paid more, but didn’t learn the facts until she was close to retirement. Ledbetter discovered then that every one of the men who worked at the same job was being paid more. The difference ranged from $6,000 a year paid to a recently hired coworker to close to $20,000, which was 40 percent more. Ledbetter and Goodyear wound up in federal court in Anniston, Alabama, where a jury agreed that she had been cheated and said she deserved $328,597 in back pay. The panel also concluded that Goodyear should be punished in a way that might discourage future cheating of this sort and added $3,286,000 to the amount to be paid Ledbetter.

Lilly Ledbetter’s experience at Goodyear was never in dispute. For nearly twenty years she had been paid less than the men who did the same work. The injustice was obvious, even if you discounted the harassment that Ledbetter endured as she was paid less. But the facts weren’t enough to protect Ledbetter from the letter of the law. In its appeal, Goodyear persuaded a higher court to find that while she may have been cheated, the company didn’t have to pay. The decision hinged on a statute of limitations that required anyone who had been discriminated against to file a complaint within six months. It didn’t matter that the company acted in secret and Ledbetter had no way of knowing what was happening. Goodyear was still protected by this rule.

The Supreme Court took up the Ledbetter case to resolve a dispute between judges who said companies could get away with secretly cheating female workers and those who noted that lawmakers had intended to punish discrimination, not excuse it. Ledbetter lost in a vote that found five conservative-leaning justices lining up against her. In his decision, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Ledbetter’s policy arguments for giving special treatment to pay claims find no support in the statute and are inconsistent with our precedents. We apply the statutes as written.”

A 5–4 decision ended the matter for Lilly Ledbetter, but she could take some comfort and encouragement from the dissent published by four justices. Writing for the four, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took the commonsense view that the type of gender-based cheating Goodyear practiced is “often hidden from sight” and that it caused a cumulative harm that should not be covered by the time limit noted by Justice Alito. The dissenters noted that Ledbetter had proved at trial that she had suffered discrimination, and federal law had been written to address this type of harm. Ginsburg also suggested that what the Supreme Court had done could be reversed by the legislative branch of government: “Once again, the ball is in Congress’s court.”

In the year that followed her defeat, Lilly Ledbetter toured the country making speeches and giving interviews. Well into her sixties, she spoke with the soft drawl she acquired while growing up in a rural community called Possum Trot. She talked about her children and grandchildren and about how she didn’t want to “sound like a whiner and a complainer.” Ledbetter recalled that when she asked her husband, Charles, if he would support her if she went to Birmingham to file her complaint, he had replied, “What time do you want to leave?” Ledbetter’s tour included a stop in Washington, where the US Senate was about to vote down a bit of legislation that would have overturned the 180-day rule that Goodyear had exploited. (One House Republican said it would be unfair to ask executives to take responsibility for discrimination that occurred in the past under previous managers.) On Capitol Hill, Ledbetter met Barack Obama, then a senator, and made a lasting impression. Months later when her husband died, the senator called with condolences and then asked her to speak at the upcoming Democratic Party convention.

On August 26, 2008, Ledbetter walked onto a brightly lit stage at a twenty-thousand-seat arena in Denver. Billed as a “pay equity pioneer,” she told the crowd about how “our highest court sided with big business. They said I should have filed my complaint within six months of Goodyear’s first decision to pay me less, even though I didn’t know that’s what they were doing.” Ledbetter added, “My case is over. I will never receive the pay I deserve. But there will be a far richer reward if we secure fair pay for our children and grandchildren, so that no one will ever again experience the discrimination that I did.”

A plainspoken woman who had worked extremely hard through her entire life, Ledbetter was from the same generation as the president’s mother. The discrimination Ledbetter had experienced was not much different from the cheating that black Americans had endured forever. These factors and others prompted Obama to call on Ledbetter during his presidential campaign. (Ledbetter appeared in Virginia with Michelle Obama.) The candidate invoked her name during a nationally televised debate. After he was elected, Ledbetter joined the Obama family on the symbolic train trip they took to his swearing-in ceremony. She even danced with the new president at one of the inauguration balls.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first law Barack Obama would sign as president of the United States. The law, approved by a Congress controlled by the president’s party, closed the loophole Goodyear had slipped through to avoid the judgment of the jury in Anniston. However, it did not end the debate over fair pay. After the Ledbetter Act, politicians and academics would continue to argue over the size and nature of the wage gap between men and women, as well as its causes.

In the grossest measure, determined by comparing what women and men were paid overall, the difference was 20 percent or more. Skeptics would say that men and women worked in different fields and this explained the disparity. (They also cited the tendency for women to focus more on family life and on the possibility that men were simply better at demanding more money.) However, studies that compared men and women working in the same job also revealed gender gaps. Male chief executives enjoy a gender boost of $674 per week. In teaching, which has traditionally been a female occupation, men are paid $324 more weekly. No hard evidence could be found to prove men were better at asking for raises, and no social factor, including greater family responsibilities, could explain away the entire gap.

One new law, focused narrowly on the issue revealed by the Ledbetter case, would not close the wage gap. However, it did put employers on notice of the risk they incurred if they used a two-tiered pay system. Throughout his presidency Obama pushed for the more sweeping reform contained in what was called the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have added to the penalties applied in cases of discrimination, barred retaliation against workers who complained, and required larger employers to report the rates of pay for men and women. The act was defeated in the Senate, more than once, and once the GOP took control of the Senate in 2014, its backers, including the president, would have no chance of making it into law. 

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Opponents of government action tended to frame the problem of the pay gap in a way that suggested it was so complex and nuanced that it defied solution. This was not true. Many countries report a much smaller wage gap than the United States. In countries as varied as Spain, Belgium, and New Zealand, it is below 10 percent. In Ireland it is less than 14 percent. Women fare better in these countries, and many others, because they offer lower-cost child care and paid leave for new parents. The policies countries have used to close the gender gap range from tax reforms to actual quotas for the hiring and promotion of women. German law requires that large corporations reserve 30 percent of board seats for women.

Economic engineering of the sort seen in parts of Europe would be all-but-impossible in the United States, especially with Obama blocked in Congress. However, in 2014 he did impose some of the rules contained in the Paycheck Fairness Act on federal contractors, requiring them to report their pay rates for men and women and barring them from retaliating when women lodged complaints. Two years later another executive order required all employers with more than one hundred workers to report what they were paying people by gender. If the next president leaves it in place, this rule will provide the kind of information that might settle disputes of gender equality in tens of thousands of workplaces. The power of this kind of information was evident in the improvement that federal reports showed in the years since the Lilly Ledbetter Act was adopted. After getting worse during the Bush years, the gap actually closed slightly during the Obama presidency. Although it would be impossible to quantify, some evidence could be found to suggest that all the talk about fair pay for women could move employers to do the right thing on their own.

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A case in point could be seen at the company Salesforce.com, where the chief executive officer believed he was already paying men and women equally. When two women employees told him they thought his assumptions were wrong, Marc Benioff asked his managers for a report on the matter. He discovered that the employees were right. He immediately spent $3 million to close the gap and committed managers to keeping the genders on par going forward.

Excerpted from A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama by Michael D’Antonio. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.

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Story Cover Image Credit: House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats / Flickr

Story Cover Image Caption: Lilly Ledbetter and Speaker Pelosi look on as President Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

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