This past July, Walden University hosted a panel forum called “In Power for a Change: Women Leading Social Change” in Minneapolis. Moderated by Walden Board of Directors Chair Paula Singer, the panel brought together three women—Lilly Ledbetter, Dr. Anita McDonald, and Gloria Lewis—to discuss the challenges women leaders face in the workplace. What emerged from the discussions were three different perspectives on hardship and challenges, and how three women navigated the hurdles of discrimination to come out on top and lead social change. Here are their stories.
Lilly Ledbetter, a Goodyear Tire & Rubber employee from Alabama, transformed herself from a victim of pay discrimination to a global advocate for equal pay. Dr. Anita McDonald, a university administrator, overcame stereotypes to eventually become chancellor of Penn State DuBois. And Gloria Lewis persevered through biased doubts about her abilities as a black woman to become CEO of one of the largest Big Brothers Big Sisters affiliations in the nation—Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities. Though each one of these women has improved her career and the lives of those around her, none has reached that point without a fight.
All three women discovered injustice at some point in their careers. Though Ledbetter had performed well during her nearly 20 years working at the Goodyear tire plant in Gadsden, Alabama, she saw her fellow male managers could afford luxuries that she could not. But she continued her work without questioning her pay, because under company policy, employees could be fired for discussing their wages.
One day in 1998, Ledbetter found an anonymous note on her desk that revealed she was being paid between 25 and 40 percent less than her male counterparts. Ledbetter never discovered who wrote the note that launched her decade-long legal battle, though she says it proves the importance of always respecting others, even if their position is below yours on the corporate totem pole.
“Networking, I believe, is the key,” she says. “Know everybody from the janitor all the way to the top and learn as much as you can about each person.”
Anita McDonald first encountered pay discrimination as an administrator, when an employee who suspected that she was being unfairly compensated approached her for advice. As it turned out, an intern was receiving the same pay as the employee, though the employee had a college degree. This reminded McDonald of her own struggles, such as when she was unfairly passed over for a dean position. “I knew, of the three candidates, that I was the best qualified for the position,” she reflects. But when she brought up the possibility of discrimination because she was a black woman, the hiring authorities took offense, so she let the subject drop.
Gloria Lewis says labels—like “woman” and “black” that impeded Ledbetter and McDonald—are also hurting the youth she encounters at Big Brothers Big Sisters. She says the children she works with are negatively labeled by many factors such as “poor,” “single-parent household,” and “child of a convict.” “I don’t know how many people can understand what that does to a child, but it is an incredible thing,” she says. “It takes away from them.” Lewis has suffered under labels, as well. “I am the first woman, first person of color—male or female—to lead [Big Brothers Big Sisters],” she says. “And I cannot tell you [the surprised looks I receive] from people who say, ‘You’re the CEO?’”
Taking a Stand
In the face of these injustices, all three women took action. Ledbetter immediately showed the anonymous note to her husband and they discussed legal action. “I said, ‘I need to go to EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] and file a charge my first day off, if you have no objections. And you do realize that this will take a minimum of eight years of our life?’ He said, ‘Well, what time do you want to leave?’”
When she took her case to the authorities, Ledbetter was embarrassed to admit she had been treated unfairly. After enduring 10 years of legal battles, Ledbetter was eventually awarded $3.6 million in damages—a reward she never received. According to the law at the time, Ledbetter should have filed her complaint within 180 days of the start of the unequal pay. This was impossible, because Ledbetter didn’t discover the inequality until 7,300 days after it had begun.
When McDonald was confronted with the employee’s claim, she knew action had to be taken, but she also knew the value of patience when dealing with these issues. When McDonald herself was passed over for a dean position, even though she knew that she was the most-qualified candidate, she chose not to burn bridges. Her patience paid off: The same dean position opened up again, and this time, McDonald was hired.
McDonald believes she was initially passed over for the job because she is a black woman, and Lewis says this practice of stereotyping affects not only the current workforce, but also children growing up in America. Lewis recalls an eight-year-old boy who had moved from Somalia to Minneapolis. “He was kind of hard to relate to at first, because we didn’t know what had happened in his prior life before coming to this country,” she says. The boy had come from a country embroiled in turmoil and fighting and had lived in a refugee camp. Instead of giving up and labeling him because of past difficulties, his mentor “stuck with him,” says Lewis. The mentor guided him through his studies all the way through high school.
Passing the Torch
When Ledbetter was unable to claim awarded damages because of a law that stated she must have filed her claim within 180 days of her first discriminatory check, she took the fight to Washington. On January 29, 2009, President Obama signed his first bill into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which resets the 180-day statute every paycheck, thus extending the deadline for filing a complaint. On inauguration day, Ledbetter danced with Obama at the inaugural ball, but she says the celebration does not mark an end to her fight. “This is a national problem,” she says.
Since overcoming her own struggles, McDonald continues to steer higher education institutions toward creating positive social change. Prior to her current position, she held senior academic administration positions at the University of Arizona and the University of Missouri– St. Louis. Under her current position as chancellor at Penn State DuBois, students have increased volunteer hours, community fundraising, and a focus on concern for veterans.
At Big Brothers Big Sisters, reaching out to others on an individual level is something Lewis advocates on a daily basis. Mentoring is one of the most efficient ways to make positive change, she says. The Somali-American boy who was mentored recently received a full scholarship to the University of Minnesota, where he plans to study medicine. “He is going to be a doctor. One day you’re going to walk into a room, and you will not know his story because he will be Dr. Hassan. And he will not tell you of the days he spent in the refugee camp and the days that they didn’t eat.”
Turning Inspiration Into Action
Walden University Board of Directors Chair Paula Singer, who moderated “In Power for a Change: Women Leading Social Change,” praised Ledbetter, McDonald, and Lewis as “great inspirations” who will influence future generations with their advice and their actions.
Ledbetter says, “I tell young women today to be sure that you start out and negotiate your salary and make sure that you’re being paid fairly.” McDonald agrees, and says the first step is realizing your worth. “Know what you’re about. You really do have to build your support and your relationships one at a time. That’s where I would start—with being confident and stepping out there.” Lewis echoes those sentiments: “Do not be afraid to step out from the status quo. If you know something and it’s different, say it, but be able to back it up with what you have and stand firm.”
As President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law on January 29, 2009, he remarked on how it would symbolically uphold one of the nation’s first principles. “We are all created equal and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness,” said Obama, as Lilly Ledbetter stood behind him.
In 1998, Ledbetter discovered that after nearly 20 years of working for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, she had been paid significantly less than her male counterparts. Though a lower court found that she was the victim of pay discrimination, the Supreme Court ruled against her in 2007. At that time, the law required an employee to file an equal-pay lawsuit within 180 days of the first discriminatory paycheck. Ledbetter had not discovered the discrimination until nearly 20 years after the first paycheck.
Ledbetter did not surrender, and after more than 10 years of legal battles, the new act bearing her name changed the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, now restarts the 180-day time limit with every unequal paycheck that an employee receives. “In the year 2009, countless women are still losing thousands of dollars in salary, income, and retirement savings over the course of a lifetime,” added Obama. “Making our economy work means making sure it works for everybody. It’s not just unfair and illegal, it’s bad for business to pay somebody less because of their gender or their age or their race or their ethnicity, religion, or disability.”