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.”