Inequality put right: recent lessons from America

Being in Washington tends to focus one’s mind on things American, which can be very refreshing and enriching, bringing as it does a slightly different perspective to one’s world view. Yet even though the view is different, the issues are often at heart the same, and as I was reading the comments made by the First Lady, Michelle Obama, at an event a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of this very strongly. She was talking in Florida about the work her husband had done in office, and how his values had motivated him to do what was right, to help create a more equal world, and she reminded her audience that the very first Act that President Obama had signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (2009).

This Act was designed to overturn the 180 day limitation on anyone (but principally women) bringing a claim against their employers for unfair or unequal rates of pay. The law responded directly to (and therefore overturned) the 2007 ruling by the US Supreme Court which had held that the statute of limitations for presenting an equal-pay lawsuit begins on the date that the employer makes the initial discriminatory wage decision, not at the date of the most recent paycheck, as a lower court had ruled. The ruling had come about when Lilly Ledbetter, a production supervisor at a Goodyear tyre factory in Alabama, filed an equal-pay lawsuit regarding pay discrimination six months before her early retirement in 1998, but relating to a period of several years over which her pay had slipped in comparison to the pay of her male counterparts.

For most of the years she worked for Goodyear, from 1979 to 1998, Lilly Ledbetter worked as an area manager, a position largely occupied by men. To begin with, her salary was in line with the salaries of men performing similar work, but over time this changed, and by the end of 1997, the pay discrepancy between Ledbetter and her 15 male counterparts was obvious: she was paid $3,727 per month, while the lowest paid male area manager received $4,286 per month and the highest paid, $5,236. Under the statute of limitations, however, she was not entitled to receive any compensation, as the discriminatory decisions relating to pay had been made more than 180 days prior to the date she filed her charge.

Inequality is inequality, and should be put right. And it was. As Michelle Obama said in Florida of her husband, ‘he did this because he knows what it means when women aren’t treated fairly in the workplace. He watched his own grandmother – a woman with a high school education – work her way up to become the vice president at a little community bank. And she worked hard. She was good at her job. But, like so many, she hit a glass ceiling, and she watched men no more qualified than she was – men she actually trained – be promoted up the ladder ahead of her.’ And he signed this bill because he knows that closing that pay gap can mean the difference between women losing $50, $100, $500 from each check, or having that money for gas and groceries and school clothes for their kids. He did it because when nearly two-thirds of women are breadwinners or co-breadwinners, he knows that women’s success in this economy is the key to families’ success in this economy. And he did it because, as he put it, we believe that here in America, there are no second-class citizens in our workplace.

So true and so important to hear. They say that travel broadens the mind. It certainly allows us the opportunity to think, reflect and remember that our quest for equality is not yet over, but is still underway. It is incumbent upon all of us to remember that we all have a part to play in the journey.

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