Lilly Ledbetter's voice is filled with righteous indignation.
"This is really taking this country down. It's hurting the education of our children, because so many women I speak with, they're working two jobs, sometimes they work every day and the weekend trying to make ends meet. They're exhausted when they're at home, they don't feel like preparing meals or shopping, and the children get by the best they can. They cannot go to school for education meetings," she says before her voice trails off. Then, a quiet moment. "People don't realize what this is doing to the American family and to this country."
The "this" she is referring to is the gender wage gap, which despite the many strides women have made in the last hundred years, still persists in the United States. If there's someone who knows the frustrations of not receiving the same pay as their male coworkers, it's Ledbetter.
At the end of her 19-year career at a tire factory based in Alabama, she found out she was being paid significantly less than her male coworkers. "About 40%," she says. Ledbetter sued her former employer on grounds of pay discrimination, but lost the case at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007. In 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as an effort to prevent the same thing from happening to someone else. It was the very first piece of legislation he signed as president.
I realized I would be shortchanged for the rest of my life.
On Tuesday, Ledbetter joined forces with New York City's first lady Chirlane McCray to speak with Refinery29 about a new New York City law that aims to protect women and people of color from receiving lesser pay.
In 2016, the U.S. ranked #45 in the Global Gender Gap Report, according to a report by the World Economic Forum. On average, a woman makes about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. And women of color see an even a bigger gap: Black women make about 64 cents, and Latinas make only about 54 cents in comparison to their male counterparts.
"This bill does make sure there is a level playing field for private and public employers. [Hiring managers] are not allowed to ask about the previous salary, which is really essential, so that [women and people of color] not only can earn an equal pay, but they are able to establish a salary history that is on par with what is made by men," McCray tells Refinery29. "And that, of course, has long-lasting consequences, because that's what your social security is based on, and many other benefits."
Looking back, the long-lasting consequences are what still haunt Ledbetter. She still thinks about her lost wages in relation to her retirement, her 401K, and her social security.
"I realized I would be shortchanged for the rest of my life," she says.
And that's the reason why she's an activist for gender equality and equal pay today. It's why she is in New York City speaking about the new law alongside McCray. And it's why she is encouraging people to be aware of what legislation is being enacted at the local and national level.
It's not going to happen if we stay silent.
Chirlane McCray, first lady of New York City
"Individuals really need to stay educated on what's happening locally, statewide, and nationally as well," she says.
In the meantime, what can you do if you're a young woman entering the labor force? Well, Ledbetter wants you to do your homework.
"You've got Google, you've got the Internet, you can find out all sorts of information," she says. "You can do all your homework, research, and if you know someone that's working there in a similar position, find out all you can from that individual."
She adds, "And if you're coming out of college, you can take the American Association of University Women's 'Start Smart' program, which teaches young women how to negotiate. And they'll get you so fired up in those classes until you'll fight, almost, to get your equal pay, because you will not want to walk away and leave that money on the table you could've earned."
As important as it is for women to do their homework, it's also crucial for them to stand up for themselves at the negotiating table.
"It's not going to happen if we stay silent," McCray says. "Having an open dialogue about [salaries] is also important. [Not doing so] has lifelong consequences which cannot be underestimated."
In the end, Ledbetter and McCray want people to be aware that the gender wage gap is an issue — but together we can close it.
"You really have to work together with other like-minded individuals and organizations to mend this problem," McCray said. "It's not going to happen if we stay silent."
#GettingTo5050, a global movement rooted in actionable tools and resources, aims to catalyze the conversations that will inspire a more gender-balanced world. Because true equality doesn't just lift women — it lifts everyone. Learn more here.