Do you know how much your colleagues earn? I thought not. You probably know more about your co-workers’ sex lives than you do about what’s in their pay envelopes. Unless they volunteer the information, or leave their pay stubs lying out on their desk, it can take years to learn that someone else is being paid more than you for the same work, if you ever do. My lucky break came decades ago at another magazine when I was inadvertently mailed someone else’s check. How often do the postal gods help out a worker like that?
But now, ladies–and all of you whose color, religion or national origin leave you open to prejudice–you can just quit your fussing. In Ledbetter v. Goodyear, the Supreme Court All-Male Five just ruled that unless you figure out that you are the victim of pay discrimination within 180 days of said discrimination’s commencement, it doesn’t matter. You’re too late. While decades’ worth of previous judgments have always held that each discriminatory paycheck constituted a new act for purposes of meeting Title VII’s six-month deadline, the Roberts Court holds that only the original one counts. Six months into being screwed over by your boss, pay discrimination is your own damn fault–like so much else in life! Those small initial discrepancies you suspected but accepted because you wanted the job and figured you’d fix them later when you’d made yourself indispensable? Too bad for you, Ms. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, Mr. Gotta Show Them I’m a Team Player. You should have peeked at the white guy’s paycheck sooner–much sooner. During her nineteen years at Goodyear, Lilly Ledbetter–the only woman in the group of sixteen at her level–remained unaware that her male colleagues were raking in hefty raises while she received meager ones. By the time she found out, she was close to retirement.
At least the Court recognized, albeit grudgingly, that discrimination does occur. For some time, conservatives have argued that what look like rather large pay differentials–around 75 cents on the male dollar–actually reflect women’s “choices.” Women earn less because they choose to become daycare workers instead of parking valets and pediatricians instead of heart surgeons; because they “opt out” of the workforce for family reasons; because even if men and women do the same work, the women show up late and go home early. They just don’t care about their jobs like the men do. If you ignore everything you know about how the world actually works–something conservative economists are very good at doing–this line can even appear persuasive.
The Independent Women’s Forum puts out a regular stream of disinformation to explain away unequal pay. “What they call ‘choices’ are not unconditioned by discrimination,” Heidi Hartmann, head of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told me on the phone. “If a woman knows a field is unfriendly to women, she is less likely to go into it. If she knows she has less chance of promotion, she may decide she and not her husband should stay home with the baby. Choices are not made in a vacuum.”
True enough. But now we can forget all that obfuscatory conservative flimflam. We’re back to square one: Discrimination exists–when she retired Ledbetter was making $6,700 a year less than the lowest-paid man at her level. But so what? By not figuring it out right away, by trusting your employer, by following the mossy pathways of company procedure, you’ve given your consent. You’re almost like a woman who gets date-raped because she thought the guy was a friend. I’ll bet her chances in the Roberts court wouldn’t be so good either.
If we can’t rely on the courts–to which George W. Bush continues to propose cave dwellers like Leslie Southwick even as I write these words (he’s the one who thinks the N-word is acceptable workplace speech and that bisexual mothers should lose custody)–there’s always the law of unintended consequences. A lot more women and minorities may bring suit first, rather than try to work things out politely with their employer, as right-wing antifeminists are always advising women to do if they feel, no doubt mistakenly, that they have a grievance. For those who believe the feminist movement marginalized itself by taking its eye off the dollar, this is the perfect opportunity to get back to economic issues that have cross-class appeal. Economic populists take note: You might want to add eliminating sexist and racist pay discrimination to your definition of the common good. And those who think feminism is no longer necessary might want to consider the connection between Ledbetter and the Court’s upholding of the so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban. Putting women back in their box, anyone?
The good news is that Ledbetter is one decision that can be remedied through legislation, as Justice Ginsburg pointed out in her stinging dissent. Within days of the decision, Democrats moved to address the ruling with new legislation, with Hillary Clinton in the lead. (Hmmm, isn’t she supposed to be the all-corporate big-bucks candidate who should be siding with the Chamber of Commerce on this? Maybe there’s something to this sisterhood stuff after all.)
Meanwhile, wish good luck to the women of Wal-Mart in their ongoing legal battle and to the 1,500 women executives of General Electric suing the company for sex discrimination. And to Justice Ginsburg, lonely voice of sanity and justice, Centi anni!
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As usual around this time, I’m passing the hat for the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt, a German group that runs fantastic summer camps in Bosnia for Bosnian and other ex-Yugoslav children and weeklong gatherings in Germany for Israeli and Palestinian youth. Nation readers have been a mainstay of this effort, which helps the cause of peace by breaking down ethnic barriers. All amounts are welcome, but $150 makes you a “godparent,” supporting a child’s “vacation from war.” Send checks made out to “Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt” to me, c/o The Nation, 33 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003, and I will forward them (www.vacation-from-war.com).