From a plant worker for Goodyear Tire to a high-ranking editor at the BBC, the song of wage discrimination remains the same: in the 21st century, women are still paid less than their male counterparts for doing similar jobs.
Income disparity represents a pressing issue for Sylvia Law, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law, Medicine and Psychiatry Emerita and co-director of the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program at NYU School of Law, who delivered the 2018 Levine Lecture at Fordham Law on November 1. Law’s lecture addressed income gender equality and free speech.
“We live in a world where there are gross disparities in income and power,” Law said, who joined the NYU faculty in 1973.
Economic growth had begun to slow in the 1970s and the gap between the nation’s richest and poorest citizens grew—and it has been growing ever since. Law addressed this issue and invited the audience to think about practical ways to combat wage discrimination and income equality writ large.
Law peppered her lecture with sobering statistics, including facts that the top 1% of wealthy Americans owns 42% of the nation’s wealth and that women still make, on average, about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes across his lifetime.
To drive home the latter data point, Law told the stories of Lilly Ledbetter and Carrie Gracie. Ledbetter was a union worker for Goodyear Tire who in 2007 sued the company for alleged wage discrimination, as she was making over five hundred dollars per month less than the lowest paid male employee at her plant. Ledbetter lost her case in the Supreme Court because she could only recover for discrimination during the 180-day charging period, per Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Gracie served as editor of the BBC’s China bureau, but quit in early 2018 when she discovered she was being paid considerably less than her male counterparts in the BBC’s U.S. and Middle East bureaus. Even ostensibly progressive institutions often have persistent issues with wage discrimination, Law noted.
A large part of the problem, she acknowledged, is that “judicial experience has often been deaf, blind, and worse to the experience” of people who are not like the judges, particularly women.
Law concluded by sharing her thoughts on the future of the movement she has been so integral to for most of her life.
“We can no longer look to the federal courts,” she stated bluntly. “Thanks to the 2016 election, the best that can be expected is adherence to well-established laws.”
For now, education and access to information offer the best opportunities to fight back. Studies have shown that wage transparency reduces wage gaps, so Law encouraged her audience to buck the social taboo against openly discussing earnings with one’s coworkers and supervisors.
Education constitutes the flip side of the same coin—the more people know about wage discrimination and the more stories and statistics they hear, the more likely they will be to do something about it.
“In my lifetime, teaching has been a calling and a gift,” she said.