How Women Get Trapped In The Cycle Of Being Underpaid — And How They Get Equal Pay

The pay gap has trapped generations of women. But there’s another way.

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Most people go to work with the promise that their hard work will be fairly rewarded. And for 19 years, that’s what Lilly Ledbetter did.

At her job with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Gadsden, Alabama, she frequently pulled 12-hour shifts and often worked overtime as a supervisor. But in 1998, as she was nearing retirement, she said, she got an anonymous note in her mailbox at work. The scrap of paper had her name and her salary, plus the names and salaries of three men in the same managerial role. She was earning $3,727 per month, while her male peers were paid $4,286 to $5,236 per month.

“It’s devastating,” Ledbetter said about the discovery. “You don’t know how many people know the story.”

By the end of her shift, she resolved to fight back. “I could not let it go,” she said. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and later sued Goodyear. She won on the facts but lost on a technicality. A jury awarded her $3.3 million in damages, but she never saw a cent because Goodyear appealed the decision up to the U.S. Supreme Court and won a 5-4 decision in 2006. The court ruled that she found out too late about being underpaid: She had to file her claim within 180 days of her first discriminatory paycheck.

Lilly Ledbetter was the plaintiff in the Supreme Court pay discrimination case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. “We have to keep going. You can’t give up. We gained a little, and we cannot lose what we got,” she says.
Lilly Ledbetter was the plaintiff in the Supreme Court pay discrimination case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. “We have to keep going. You can’t give up. We gained a little, and we cannot lose what we got,” she says.

But you cannot fight your pay discrimination until you know about it, and at Goodyear, employees were discouraged from talking about their wages.

“That was a forbidden thing to do. No one ever discussed their pay,” Ledbetter said.

The 180-day time frame requirement was closed by the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which mandates that the statute of limitations is reset with each paycheck. Now, at 80, Ledbetter is one of the best-known faces of America’s equal pay movement, but she still has trouble paying her bills.

“This month has been rough: I had to call a plumber and then was told I needed to buy tires now that I was planning to buy in two months,” she wrote in a CNN opinion piece in January. “How will I make the money stretch this month, how will I keep the power on, how will I keep the heat on?”

When she found out about her pay discrepancy, Ledbetter said, she knew it would follow her for the rest of her life.

“The first thing that popped in my mind was my overtime pay. It was a tremendous loss to me and my family,” she said. “The next thing I thought about was my contributory retirement. My 401(k) and someday my Social Security was all based on what I was earning.”

When The Pay Gap Cycle Starts

Ledbetter’s story speaks to the long-term cost of what being underpaid can mean for women, who are not guaranteed paid maternal leave and retire on less but live longer than men, on average. And the cycle of falling behind starts early: Women graduate into a pay gap. A 2013 study from the American Association of University Women found that female college graduates in 2009 earned about 6.6 percent less than their male peers in their first job the year after graduation, even after controlling for occupation, hours worked, employment status, undergraduate major, age, geography and marital status.

The money women can lose at the beginning hurts them at the end. Most pay raises are likely to happen in the first 15 years of a person’s career. And that gap can get wider with each salary offer.

Linda Babcock, an economist who researches gender differences in negotiation, said that women can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars through not negotiating. In her book Ask For It, she calculates that a 22-year-old woman just out of college could lose out on over $750,000 in her lifetime if she does not negotiate for $5,000 more in annual salary early in her career.

To break that cycle, people must first realize that they are being underpaid. Ledbetter did not negotiate for more money because she did not know about the pay discrepancy until someone told her. Many Americans work in places where they can talk about their salaries. If you can, take advantage of that. If not, get to work.

“People ... today have got the computer. You can research, you can find out the going rate for that job and that community. You have so much more advantage. I didn’t have that when I was working,” Ledbetter told HuffPost, citing the American Association of University Women and the National Women’s Law Center as two sources of help. “There’s a lot of people out there, there’s a lot of organizations that can help women today.”

Help does not have to be anonymous. It can be awkward discussing money with friends and colleagues, but it’s even more awkward to lose out on thousands of dollars. Use that high potential price as motivation to get over the anxiety of asking. “Can you help me calibrate my expectations of what range of salary the company is paying for this job?” is a reasonable question young women can ask people in their field, Babcock said.

A 22-year-old woman could lose out on over $750,000 in her lifetime if she does not negotiate for $5,000 more in annual salary early in her career, according to Linda Babcock. 
A 22-year-old woman could lose out on over $750,000 in her lifetime if she does not negotiate for $5,000 more in annual salary early in her career, according to Linda Babcock. 

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School in New York, used frank salary conversations with her colleagues to get more money when she was up for tenure and a promotion. “I think that I was compensated more fairly and that that ask was much more effective because I had concrete numbers,” she said.

There are a number of cultural factors that can constrain women from speaking up. Babcock said that women are more likely than men to believe that pay is not negotiable and that organizations will pay them fairly.

“If you don’t know, you could think, ‘Well, maybe I’m getting a really good deal, and I don’t want to seem either like I’m bragging or I don’t want to call attention to the fact that I’m getting a great deal,’” Petrzela said. For colleagues who are being underpaid, talking about it can feel like “proof that I’m less valuable by acknowledging this fact. ... I think that a lot of that kind of thinking conspires to keep us silent about compensation.”

The Questions We All Need To Ask

Negotiating is great, but it’s not up to employees to solve the problem that women earn about 79 cents for every man’s dollar. What would ending the pay gap cycle look like? It starts with questioning the foundation of assumptions built into the workplace as a fair place for all.

“A lot of the best practices in hiring and compensation decision assume that equality already exists in the world and, in doing so, prevent it from being achieved,” said Katie Donovan, the founder of consulting firm Equal Pay Negotiations. Employers asking prospective hires what they earned at their previous jobs is one example, she said.

In 2016, Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to bar employers from asking about salary history, and since then, a number of cities and states, including New York City and California, have passed similar measures.

Donovan, one of the authors of the Massachusetts law, said that the question can be used to weed out candidates quickly.

“How do I quickly get to the [resumes] I want to read? If you make too much, we can’t afford you, so you’re out, and if you make too little, you must not be too good, so you are out,” she said. “If I’m statistically making 20 percent less, 40 percent less, I don’t even have the same likelihood of getting the same phone [interview], never mind the job offer.”

Putting a number in an employer’s mind can anchor them to it. Once employers know that you were previously lowballed, they can lowball you too.

Being underpaid once should not sentence you to being underpaid for the rest of your life, and we all have a stake in changing this cycle. For employees, it can mean raising questions about the neutrality of the pay process. “What is the average salary for men at this company?” you could ask. Hearing these kinds of questions brought up by job candidates and employees can alert human resources that the issue needs to be addressed, Donovan said.

For managers, it can mean limiting subjective hiring and compensation language like the salary question.

For policymakers, it can mean getting behind legislation like the proposed federal Paycheck Fairness Act, which would let employees talk about their salaries without facing retaliation from bosses and would bar employers from using salary histories in pay decisions. Employers would also have to explain gender pay disparities and prove that they are not due to gender.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez discusses the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was reintroduced on Jan. 30 at a press conference in Washington.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez discusses the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was reintroduced on Jan. 30 at a press conference in Washington.

“It is time that we pay people what they are worth and not how little they are desperate enough to accept,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) when the Paycheck Fairness Act was reintroduced in Congress on Jan. 30, according to ABC News.

Ledbetter also spoke in favor of the bill, joining House Democrats and activists at a press conference in Washington that day. “We cannot subject another generation of women, our daughters and our granddaughters to this injustice. This is the time to make equal pay a reality,” she said, according to C-SPAN.

More than 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex. Although it is one thing to know women at work are worth the same the dollar amount as men, it’s another to actually get it. Until that promise of equality is realized by vigilant policymakers, employers and employees, the pay gap will continue to be an injustice that women will need to reckon with.

“Every woman goes through what feels safe and what doesn’t. And every woman goes through, ‘Am I getting paid correctly, or am I not?’” Donovan said. “And I would say, unless and until you have proof that you are getting paid absolutely correctly, assume you are not.”

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