Webinar: Talking with the Tenacious Lilly Ledbetter

Video Description

What inspired Lilly Ledbetter to act on an anonymous tip and take her fight for equal pay to the Supreme Court and the halls of Congress? Find out as Beata Kirr and Kim Davis, Co-leads of Bernstein’s Women & Wealth Institute, sit down with the fair pay icon and namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act.


This transcript has been generated by an A.I. tool. Please excuse any typos.

Hello, I'm Beata Kirr, Co-Head of Investment Strategies at Bernstein Private Wealth and founder of our Women & Wealth Institute here at Bernstein. I want to welcome you along with my Co-Head of the Women & Wealth Institute, Kim Davis, to our conversation with the truly impressive and amazingly tenacious Lilly Ledbetter. We have Lilly to thank for the passing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act.

Now this segment has been pre-recorded, but we want you to watch and put in questions as you're watching, as Lilly will be back with us in person for a live Q&A. Before we dive further into who Lilly is, I just want to take a moment to address the why. Why did Kim and I think it was so important to have this conversation with Lilly? To thank her and honor her for her achievements and really hear her story.

Well, it comes down to what we like to call minding the gap. What do we mean by that? Well, unfortunately, when women are growing up, there's a financial literacy gap. Studies have shown that families actually talk less to girls about money early in their childhood, than to boys. And there's a financial literacy gap, generally speaking, in terms of our education system. When they try to get credit for a big purchase or to start a business, there's a funding gap.

There's a lending gap. Down the road, ultimately, they face a retirement savings gap, which often results from that gap that starts early in childhood with women maybe not being as focused on investing from day one. So when you add up all of those gaps, it amounts to a real financial challenge. So helping women identify and tackle that challenge is what makes Kim and I tick.

Now, overall, women are still paid less than men and the pay gap does worsen with age. But things have gotten better and you'll hear in Lilly's story, leaders like her are really very much part of the reason. Here's some recent facts from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. So among younger workers, ages 16 to 24, women's median weekly earnings are about 8% lower than men's.

The gap's even larger for prime age workers, with women earning 16% less than men. The pay gap is larger still among those aged 55 to 64, with women earning 22% less than men at the median. So we've still got work to do. The hashtag and theme for International Women's Day this year is embrace equity. So we have to keep on going. But we clearly would be nowhere today without Lilly's grit and determination. She took this challenge head on. She made a difference for women everywhere. It is such an honor and privilege for Kim and I to share this platform with her. So Lilly, thank you so much.

Thank you for having me. I'm always enthused to talk about equal pay for equal work for our women and minorities, because it sustains our American families. It's an American right.

Thank you, Lilly. So we're going to go to a short clip that really tees up your story a bit, and provides more background. We'll play it for you now.

I grew up in one of the poorest counties of Alabama. I had to chop cotton in the spring for my grandfather. Picking that cotton when I was a child taught me that you give a good day's work for a good day's pay. I hired in with Goodyear February 5th, 1979. I go into work one evening and I look in my mail and here's this note. It has four names and it was the three men and myself.

We had had the same job. The lowest paid one, he had less education, less training, was younger. And he was already making 600 plus more a month than I was. Goodyear paid me unfairly for 17 years and my family needed that money. The easy thing to do was let it go, but that's not who I am. And I told my husband, "I have to file a charge in Birmingham, Alabama. And I will tell you up front if I start, I'll be in it at least eight years." He said, "What time do you want to leave?"

Lilly Ledbetter.

She worked 19 years as a supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant, but at the end of her career says she discovered she was paid far less than men doing the same job. Ledbetter sued, but the US Supreme Court threw out her case, saying she filed her lawsuit too late.

President Obama signed his first bill into law. And the woman who inspired it, a grandmother who took her case to the Supreme Court and lost, finally saw her goal realized.

What an amazing story. So I want to rewind in time and really go through this whole experience in detail across your career and how we got to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. So I think we have to start with your childhood. So you tell the story of being born in a house with no running water, no electricity in a town called Possum Trot, Alabama.

And in 1979, you were one of the first women ever hired at the management level at the local Goodyear Tire Factory. So tell us a little bit more about your childhood journey and getting to Goodyear. And really what do you think they saw in you?

That was a long journey to get there. Because I was born so long ago and grew up in such a poor county of Alabama, but I knew I had ambitions to go farther. Because that was who I was and that's where I wanted to be. And doors was opening a little bit for women and minorities during that time.

But growing up in that poor environment and having to work on my grandfather's farm to have a little money to help buy certain things and even a pair of shoes. It was just devastating to me as a little girl. So my goal was to do better. And I started getting good jobs after my education and sometimes I worked two full-time jobs. And then Goodyear in Gadsden, Alabama built the radial division and I wanted a job with them. And a lot of the publicity back in that day, like in Business Week magazine at the time and newspapers, they were talking about women being able to get those jobs.

I was interviewed, voted on and hired February 5th, 1979. One of few women, but I went on and was in the radial division and worked there for 19 years before I found out how much less I was making. But I knew that Goodyear was looking for a female, a minority to put in their factory, because that was really basically the law. Because they should.

They should have done that and they should have been adhering to all federal laws and guidelines at the time. But later, after 19 years, to my sorrow, I learned that they were not.

You spent 19 years at Goodyear, but unfortunately during that time you faced gender prejudice and sexual harassment. But you pressed on, believing that eventually things would get better. Until 19 years after your first day you received that famous anonymous note. You were coming up on retirement and now you learn that you were being paid 40% less than your male counterparts, thousands less per year than men in your same position. Did you ever find out who left you that note?

No, I did not. And actually if I had a suspicion, I would keep it to myself, because it wouldn't even be safe due to retaliation for a person, even if they are retired. But it almost had to be someone in management or the janitor, because my pay records came out of Akron, Ohio and I worked for Goodyear in Gadsden, Alabama. And so there were very few records laying around.

But somebody found out and I knew when I saw the amount, mine was to the dollar, it was exact. So I knew that the guys' was also. And I was just so devastated and embarrassed, humiliated, to tell you the truth. Because to know a major corporation had done a woman who worked hard, never turned any overtime down. If they called, I went. No, regardless of what I was doing, because we got overtime pay along with our additional hours. And that made a lot of difference in our pay.

But the first thing I thought about was how much, and how hard it'd been on my family to do without. And make things come together on less money than I had really basically earned under the law. But I just thought about it and I could not let that go, because that was not the law and I just couldn't let it go.

Well, you're so right about the compound effect, to be paid significantly less for doing the same job when your family was depending on that money. But you mentioned something important. Somebody took the risk to send you that note and give you that note, despite the risk. What do you think motivated them to do that?

They knew that I was a hard worker. I was dependable. I did a good job. And so they sent me that note just in my box at work, just a torn piece of paper. And I had no way of knowing... It was in handwriting. So I had no way of knowing people's writing, so I could not figure it out. But after I filed the charge with the Equal Employment Commission in Birmingham, Alabama and Goodyear had been notified.

In about a month, I received in the mail the last evaluation sheet of the 16 of us that worked in the tire room. So I don't know where that came from, because the mail was stamped Birmingham, Alabama. And all of the mail in this part of North Alabama goes through the Birmingham processing office. So I could not tell where it came from, but somebody had gotten a hold of that evaluation sheet with all of the men and one woman. And the evaluation and the money was quite different.

And too, when I got that note, after thinking about all of the overtime and all of those 12 hour shifts, seven nights a week. And how much money I had lost, the next thing I thought about was my retirement, my contributory retirement, which I put in a percentage and Goodyear matched.

And then I had a 401k put in 10% matched my 6% stock, and someday my social security all would be based on what I was getting paid. What I had legally earned, I should have gotten it and should have gotten credit to go on for the rest of my life. That's why it hit me so hard. And I thought about it. I thought about it. I had a 12-hour shift overnight, from 7:00 at night to 07:00 in the morning. I thought about it all night.

I knew that if I started, it would be rough because of retaliation. And too, trying to continue working with that behind me. But I just could not let it go. I just could not let it go. I had to file a charge with the Equal Employment Commission to see what they would say and to see if they were on my side. And I was right.

Lilly, I've been wanting to jump in here and just scream. Kim, can we have a collective scream for how angry we are?

It's so hard for me to sit here calmly when I hear about that, because what we do is, we advocate for our clients, both men and women, to ensure their financial stability and success. And one of the biggest variables is income. And the compound effect over time, as you mentioned, is enormous. And we're very well familiar with that. And that's why you saw us shaking our heads because we knew exactly what you were saying. Every bit mattered over those 19 years.

It must have been so difficult to stand up against a huge corporation like Goodyear for so long.

It was tough. It really was hard. But I had a lot of people who respected me in management and upper levels, who had come by where no one could see them. They put their hand on my shoulder and they said, "I'm behind you." But they couldn't help me. And I called every manager person that I could, trying to get people to support me in court. I ended up, I had two females that had had the same job I had. They did. They both came and told it just like it was.

And then I had one African American male who had the same job that I had, and he had been discriminated against also. But he agreed to come and he was there ready to get on the stand. One thing that people don't understand about working in a factory like that. They wondered why I didn't know how I stood.

But when I went to work for Goodyear, they had government contracts making airplane tires for the government, the military. They had Jeep tires contracts. And when I left, they had Hummer tires. I felt sure that Goodyear would have their feet held to the fire, so to speak, and adhere to federal laws and guidelines. But they didn't. They did what they wanted to do. And I looked back later during the hearings and the trial preparation, I learned that a lot of years I did not even make the minimum for my job. And it was a difficult job, but I loved it. It was dirty. It was sometimes in sections, it was hot, but it was a good job.

We'd love to hear about your experience after you received the news that you lost your Supreme Court case on a technicality.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a fighter herself, and she had been along this journey. And when she read that dissent, she said, "These people don't understand what it's like in the real world." And they didn't. People don't stand around water coolers, discussing your pay. And if you work for an employer like I did, you'd lose your job if you do. So you cannot find out exactly why and how you're making less. But it was difficult, because when I heard that verdict, I just couldn't understand.

What advice would you give our audience as to how you find the courage to keep you going and to push through?

Please always have hope. Believe in yourself. Put your shoulders back and make sure we get this done and we do it right. I had a good case. I had a great attorney. The lower federal court had awarded me $3.8 million and found in my favor. But when it got up to the Supreme Court, they said I was discriminated against, but I just waited too long.

And then Linda Greenhouse called and told me, she's a reporter that said, "You wouldn't believe, I wish you had been there to hear Justice Ginsburg, and Justice challenge Congress." She said, "The ball is in your court. It's up to you to change this grave injustice back." Congressman George Miller's committee started working on it. The National Women Law Center, Jocelyn Samuels started writing speeches and arguments and we went to the House, we walked the halls.

I testified twice in the House. I testified twice in the Senate. And it was an awesome experience. And what was so astounding, this law was passed in 18 months. And it was sponsored and co-sponsor by Democrats and Republicans. That's what I am so very proud of. And by the majority of the votes that passed it, to make it become law.

It's just incredible, your tenaciousness. Incredible. So look, we're all wearing red today. I don't know if our viewers noticed, but that's in honor of you wearing red the day that the president signed the Fair Pay Restoration Act. So we hear there's symbolism there.

There are a lot of groups across the nation raising money with the pins that had red purses. And that meant women was still in the red. And we still are today.

So we're talking about this today in many ways, because your story is about to become even bigger. Because it's being made into a movie. And we hear Patricia Clarkson is going to be playing you.

I am so excited about this movie, because it will leave a story and touch a lot of people. Because oftentimes when I'm even doing an interview, I'll be talking about my lost retirements and the interviewer would go, "Oh my gosh, I never thought about my retirements." So this movie will leave a legacy I'm hoping that will go on for many years. The book, it came out in 2012, it continues to be published in paperback. And it's in a lot of law schools, a lot of HR classes in colleges. And I find it in history classes even today on some of the campuses I visit.

Lilly, you're really on the circuit now with media around Equal Pay Day and for Women's History Month. We love having you here and just really want to thank you so much for your time with us today. And again, can't thank you enough.

Thank you for joining us today, but more importantly, thank you for everything you've done for all of us.
Thank you.

And we're very excited because now we are going to go to our live Q&A.

It's wonderful to see that conversation again. And it makes us mad, happy, angry, really all at the same time. Obviously we're here live today, and that was a pre-recorded conversation, so I hope you enjoyed that discussion. We're seeing some questions coming in. I'm going to start with one. We've been asked over the years, have any of the women that you've impacted through this legislation reached out to you? And could you share any memorable moments around that?

Yes. Yes, they have. And I've rejoiced, because they share with me how much money they actually got in knowing that they could file that charge and realizing, "Hey, I better check." And they thought, because maybe they worked for the US government in a position, that they were getting equal pay. And they, sadly, they learned that the men are making thousands of dollars more than they are for doing the same job, with the same education.

So a lot of progress has been made. One woman from Mississippi, which I met her at the White House. The president had invited her and myself to celebrate for equal pay. And to sign the bill that he signed that would require people getting government contracts to have to adhere and be checked for federal guidelines and federal rules. And I met her and she had gotten a large sum of money from the company she worked for. And she quit and went back to college and took the money.

And now she's working in a better position. But she got compensated, because they had hired her and she'd been working for a lot less than the men doing the same work. And a cab driver in Washington, he shared with me that his wife collected a big check at work after he heard my story on NPR. So we have touched a lot of people. There have been a lot of stories. And when I get tapped on the shoulder in an airport or somewhere and somebody says, "Are you Lilly Ledbetter?" And I say, "Yes, I am." And they say, "The Lilly Ledbetter?" And that's when I know that my life has meant something.

Well, Lilly, it definitely has, and will continue to mean something. And we have a lot of questions coming in, but first I need to share a comment from a big fan who just said, "Lilly is my hero." You are my hero. And you are a hero from many of us.

Thank you.

We're honored. So one question that came up was really about the earlier part of your journey. And where you grew up with humble beginnings and you didn't have access to as many opportunities. And one of the listeners wanted to understand, you dreamt of this better life for yourself. And the cycle of poverty was very real where you came from. Where did you get that inspiration to work and the vision to have more opportunity from?

I just had the drive until I had to get myself out of the country. I did not want to live in rural America, because where I lived growing up, it was very poor. And the work was extremely hard. You'd work all day, 12, 15 hours, and you still wouldn't make much money. Either picking cotton or chopping cotton or picking peanuts off. That was one of the jobs I had in the fall.

So it was extremely difficult and hot and dirty. So I had the drive that the jobs were opening up and the doors was opening for women. And there were so many places across this nation that a person could go depending on their education and what they wanted to do.

So I started pushing for those jobs that I've wanted. And prior to my going to Goodyear, I had worked for H&R Block, managing 16 locations. And I had also been assistant financial aid director at Jacksonville State University. And one time I had worked for a medical group, I was working two jobs for a whole year. So that meant that sometimes I worked seven days all the time. Because for six years I did that. Because I needed the money, until I got the raises and the increase in pay. Too, I was in the South and I knew that to get where I wanted to go, I had to push hard and stand up and speak up.

Thank you, Lilly. It's so awesome to see people's comments coming in. I'm going to read another one that says, "Very grateful for your tenacity, Lilly. You said, and acknowledged the easy thing would've been to let it go, but obviously you did not and you helped all women. So thank you." So we're just getting flooded with these.

"You are my hero and thank you." So on that note, what advice would you give women today who are thinking about negotiating in their own lives, whether it's for pay or otherwise, but sometimes fear retribution?

That's true. And in some positions, I'm told that you have to be extremely careful. Because I've heard examples of a few women speaking up and saying, "I know that my coworker is making, who is male, making a lot more than I am. And I've been here longer." And they try to show their differences and feel like that they should be paid equally or better.

And then in three months or so, they are given a pink slip. They no longer have a job. So you have to be careful how you go about it. But do your homework, do all of your research. Do it the right way. And if, where you work, you have a mentor that you can trust, then you can run it by them. And you have an different opinion to help you make your decision, because oftentimes that makes a better success.

It's good to know. But too, you need to research everything you can. What's the history and how to go about it. Because if you don't do it right, you could end up losing your job. And that's one of the reasons, and that's one of the fears that holds women back. I've had women, I've even had their husbands call me and run by me what they have to put up with at work.

And ask me what are their options? And I tell them, but they'll call me back and they'll say, "My wife is just quitting, because she feels like it's better to just go home and get another job and not fight." And that's oftentimes the way. But the thing about the Ledbetter Bill, it opened the courtroom doors back up. The verdict in the Ledbetter case had closed those courtroom doors basically on any individual filing a lawsuit based on discrimination.

Well, Lilly, thank you. And when you were talking about that just now, it made me think about the connection between your experience and everything you went through. But also some of the issues we see today in the economy. You mentioned that some of the women felt like it didn't make sense for them to work, because the pay wasn't worthwhile.

And this economic participation is very important to the whole US and global economy. So speaking of allyship, how do you think we help the society that we live in understand that this isn't just a women's issue, this is an economic issue that affects all of us.

Right. And it's not just a woman's issue, it's a family affair. And even if you're just one person, you're still a family and you touch lives. So you need the rightful income. We need the young people. If they're still in college, they may have the, especially if they're female, they may join an AAUW, which is American Association University of Women.

We have the Women's Law Center in Washington DC that's headed up by female attorneys. And there's all kinds of resources that individuals can learn how to go about it and how to negotiate their beginning pay. And they can talk to people and share. So I recommend getting in an organization and to know later, you need to keep up with what your local state and your federal government, what they're [inaudible 00:28:21] and what they're doing that will affect your life.

That's really helpful feedback. So look, we're Bernstein Private Wealth over here. We focus on the money. So we're certainly intrigued by some questions around the money. And then we've got a few of them coming in all related to the money. So this might be a three part question, Lilly. But in the video you talked about how you had initially been granted a large monetary amount, but then you said you walked away with nothing. So that is question one. What happened to the money? And then I'm going to come back with follow-ups around the money.

That is a sad story. The lower federal court, the jury came back, "We find in the plaintiff's favor, $3.8 million." But the judge had to ask him to take a seat and he reduced right there, before we ever got out of court.

The 3 million dropped to 300,000 because me being white and a female, I was only entitled to 300,000. So the 3 million was gone. And the 60,000 came about, you can only go back two years on equal pay. It doesn't matter if you worked 20 or 40 years if you were so able. You can only go back two years. And if you're still getting a check and you're still getting paid, and you learn that you're discriminated against for whatever reason, you have a 180 days in any state in the nation.

And that's still the law.

That's still the law. And actually if work for the federal government, I'm told that they have their own union in some jobs. I don't think all of them do, but some of them do. And they would like for you to go through them rather than going the other route. So you need to check if you're working for the federal government, which route would be the best for you if you've got that problem.

And so the first follow-up question is, what happened to the attorney's fees?
They did not get a dime. Because the attorneys, in my case, they took my case on a contingent basis.
Got it.
Which meant that they would have gotten 50% of whatever I got. And since I got nothing, absolutely nothing, they did not get anything. But that firm has a half a million dollars in my case, in billable hours and money spent.
Wow. Okay. Last question related to the money.

But if we hadn't got that bill passed, they would've had a lot less work right now. So they're always telling me not to worry about it, because I'm still worried about, I haven't paid my lawyers bill.

Yeah, they're busy litigating everybody else's. So that's interesting how that goes around. Okay, last question. And then over to Kim. Related to the money, one of our viewers asked, "Has there ever been a suggestion that maybe Goodyear should simply just pay you?" Have they?

There's been that suggestion. In fact Congress, and I'll hand it to them, the committee. The combination of the Democrats and Republicans came together in Congress and asked Goodyear to just increase my retirement based on the 60,000 I didn't get. And then they tried to pass it so social security would increase by the 60,000 that I should have desperately gotten, but I didn't get.

But neither one of them would. In fact, Goodyear wrote back and said that I was a poor performer. But they kept me for 20 years. And Alabama's an at will state. If I was a poor performer, all they ever had to do is tell me, "Go home." No reason. And that was brought out in one of the Senate hearings. In fact, I think it was Senator Feinstein that asked the question, "Why did they keep her for 20 years if she was a poor worker?"

Well, thank you, Lilly. And we continue to see questions, but also just a lot of words of gratitude and admiration, including that you are somebody's rockstar.

Thank you.

So we're hearing about the impact that you've had, but one question that we are hearing is also regrets. Is there anything that you regret? Or anything you might have done differently strategically or otherwise when you went through this experience?

I think the biggest regret would have been, had I not done anything. Because I knew the law. I had watched President Kennedy when he signed Equal Pay Law and being a district manager for H&R Block, I knew all of the laws that pertain to workers on the first line, so to speak, like I was. Or in low management.

But the thing, if we'd have had paycheck fairness, that I fight for in Congress now. If we could get paycheck fairness passed, I would have pushed harder and found out exactly where I stood. Because I knew that my retirement was based on what I was earning. I retired, was forced out in 1981. So I've been out a long time. Excuse me, '91. I've been out a long time. And that's a lot of money I've lost in retirements.

Well, Lilly, one last question before we close. Because we've been on such a wonderful part of your journey today. What do you want your legacy to be?

I hope that even a discussion like today. That we, you and I, we've made a big difference in someone's life that they will [inaudible 00:34:18] being shortchanged and get exactly what they're earned and entitled to. And that's what I want to leave, that I made a difference. In fact, I told my pastor that at my funeral, that's the last comment I wanted, "She made a difference."

Because I think had I heard someone like myself early on, I would have made sure that I got that money regardless of getting fired. Because I had to take that chance because it's so important. Retirement contributory, contributory, a 401k, and then social security, that's a lot of loss. That's a lot of loss. And it's a lot of difference in a family's life.

It's a difference in education, how you live, everything. What kind of food you eat, how your health is, everything is influenced on what you're earning. And I've met women across the nation that have to move in their children's homes, because we women outlive our spouses usually by 10 years.

That's the average. And a lot of them do not have enough of retirement, even though they worked 30 years in a sewing factory. Or they worked at the hospital as a LPN, but they didn't get the rightful pay.

Well, you said so many things that Beata and the team and I have done research on, are aware of, and we know it's true. And we want us to continue to make progress, to ensure that there is more economic stability for people who are contributing and working so hard for their families. And Lilly, I must say that yes, I love your legacy.

You're a living legacy. And you have absolutely made a difference. And on behalf of everyone on the Bernstein team, I want to thank you for joining us and sharing your story. And we appreciate you and honor you. And thank you everybody for joining us for our discussion. If you have any questions or need to receive a copy of the video or anything else, then please reach out to the Bernstein team member who invited you. And Lilly, we thank you and we look forward to seeing more of your journey being brought to life in your film. Have a wonderful day, everyone.

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