By Juliette Terzieff
Friday, June 1, 2007
The only woman on the Supreme Court called on Congress to come up with a law to counteract this week's majority ruling on gender-based pay discrimination. New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney has done just that.
A trial jury agreed with Ledbetter, but an appeals court overturned the decision because she had waited too long to file suit and the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling upheld it.
Ledbetter began her legal challenge within a month of receiving the letter in 1998, but the 180-day rule meant her claim could only focus on the last 180 days, not 19 years of discrimination; because the initial act of discrimination was years and years outside the 180-day limit, the Supreme Court ruled against her.
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said the lack of a firm deadline would make it difficult for employers to defend suits over "employment decisions that are long past."
Pay inequity is an old battleground for women's right activists armed with data to show that more than 40 years after the creation of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which requires employers to pay men and women equally for equal work, women earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men.
"The wage gap is alive and well, as is discrimination whether it is overt or not," says Jill Miller, executive director of the Washington advocacy group Women Work! "And the costs to women and families are huge."
Women with a high school education can expect to earn $700,000 less than their male peers over their lifetimes, says Miller, while women with undergraduate and graduate degrees can expect to accumulate a lifetime deficit of $1.3 million and $2 million respectively with male counterparts.
Janet Conney, a research scientist, has fought and won a battle similar to the one that Ledbetter just lost.
Starting in 1998, Conney was a research scientist at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital in Los Angeles.
Conney says she watched as male colleagues earned double or more her salary and received promotions to positions she was told were unavailable. Supervisors and colleagues made derisive remarks about her work and suggestive comments about her appearance.
Her complaints to the administration went unaddressed. Conney's contract was not renewed in 2002 and she went into private practice.
In 2003, Conney filed a lawsuit for harassment, retaliation and pay inequity under California state laws and the Equal Pay Act of 1963--the only enforced federal law to which the 180-day rule does not apply--and discovered in pre-trial depositions that the department had maintained a secret reserve of funds they used to supplement her male colleagues' salaries.
Last March Conney received one of the largest damage verdicts--approximately $4 million--awarded by a jury in a university harassment case. The California Supreme Court refused to hear any appeals and her case is closed.
The Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear has been widely denounced by women's rights advocates who worry it will exacerbate the difficulties women face in mounting legal challenges against pay inequity under the Equal Pay Act of 1963.
"Pay inequality is such an insidious problem, and can be so difficult and time consuming to identify and prove," Miller says. "Justice Ginsburg is correct in her position that Congress should act to change the law and remove the 180-day limit."
Conney, who won her academic bias case, says before her own career problems she believed claims of pervasive discrimination were exaggerated.
"Until it happened to me, I had no idea things could be so bad," Conney says. "You look around and see professional women out there, being successful, and you just don't realize that the discrimination is still there, lurking under the surface."
She now regularly speaks to local and state women's groups about pay inequity and gender bias.
"Women need to mobilize and get the word out because the truth is while some men are very, very supportive of professional women, many are still not ready. Women have to keep pushing to get what they deserve."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Tampa, Fla., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.
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