At campaign stops, President Obama rarely neglects to remind women in the audience that the first bill he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. In 1998, Ledbetter sued her employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, when she discovered her male co-workers were paid more than she was. The case dragged on for nearly a decade, until the Supreme Court struck it down in 2007 because she’d waited too long to bring her complaint. She pressed Congress to change the law, and the statute that bears her name reversed the high court’s decision, giving employees more time to challenge companies that cheat them out of pay.
Now 74, Ledbetter has become a hallowed figure in the Obama campaign as the president tries to show his commitment to women’s equality—and draw a sharp distinction between himself and his opponent. Mitt Romney won’t say whether he’d have signed the Ledbetter Act, only that he wouldn’t try to repeal it as president. Ledbetter had a front row seat at an April 27 Obama fundraiser in Washington hosted by the Women’s Leadership Forum. Joe Biden has invited her to his house. Michelle Obama has called her “one of my favorite people in the whole wide world.” In his May 14 commencement address at Barnard College, Obama praised Ledbetter for “the courage to step up and say, you know what, this isn’t right, women weren’t being treated fairly—we lacked some of the tools we needed to uphold the basic principle of equal pay for equal work.”
An avid Obama supporter, Ledbetter is heartened by all the attention. Yet she’s not quite so enthusiastic about the progress women have made in the workplace. The Ledbetter Act has done little to fix the problem that led her to sue in the first place. It “did not change the fact that women make 77¢ on the dollar that a man makes,” she says by phone from her home in Jacksonville, Ala.
The pay disparity between men and women has barely budged in more than a decade. In speeches, Obama laments the persistent wage gap and says he’s committed to closing it. His administration, however, has not been especially aggressive in going after companies that discriminate. In Obama’s first three years in office, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought six sex-based pay lawsuits against employers, according to EEOC documents provided to Bloomberg Businessweek. By comparison, from 2006 to 2008, the agency under George W. Bush brought 18.
Marc Bendick Jr., an independent employment economist and leading authority on wage discrimination, says in contrast to Bush officials, Obama’s EEOC lags in going after companies that discriminate against women. “If you take them at their word that their intention is to have a broad impact on employers, then they are not succeeding,” says Bendick, who has served as an expert witness in hundreds of employment discrimination cases, including those brought by the EEOC.
The agency slips into extreme bureaucratese in trying to account for the steep drop in the number of cases. “We do not have an examined, data-backed explanation that we can cite with authority as why there are fluctuations in the bases of our litigation program,” says EEOC spokeswoman Justine Lisser in an e-mail. “Whatever the numbers show, it is very important to note that our litigation has a broader impact beyond the specific individuals who may benefit monetarily.”
Identifying wage discrimination is difficult because those who suspect they’re underpaid rarely have access to co-workers’ salaries. Ledbetter is out to change that. Since her own law was enacted, she’s pushed Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would protect employees from retaliation if they share their pay information with colleagues, and would let the government collect pay data from companies. The bill got through the House in 2010 but failed in the Senate. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plan to force another vote this summer.
The timing is obviously intended to put Romney on the spot. All Senate Republicans voted against the bill last time, and Romney has been silent. Ledbetter, who came away empty-handed in her suit against Goodyear and says she recently had to scrape together enough to replace her air conditioner, is just grateful for the renewed attention to the issue. If the law had been in place back when she was working, she says, “I would have known how much I would have been trapped and shortchanged in my retirement.”