You Can't Spell TRUTH Without RUTH

We have Ruth Bader Ginsberg to thank for so much, especially if we support women's rights and equal pay.


President Barack Obama commemorated the 7th anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — with the announcement of even more steps to reduce the pay gap between men and women.

It was a fitting tribute to the first measure Obama signed into law as president, which gave employees more time to sue their employers and claim discrimination — an achievement that may not have been possible without Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ledbetter, an area manager at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Alabama, claimed discrimination when she sued after discovering she was being paid less than men in the same position. But the Supreme Court ruled against Ledbetter in 2007, saying that she had to bring the suit within 180 days of when she first started getting paid less, as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires.

President Barack Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, a measure that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had pushed for. That’s where Ginsburg came in. In a sharply worded dissent, she argued the majority had overlooked the way pay discrimination works.

“The Court’s insistence on immediate contest overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination,” she wrote. “Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter’s case, in small increments; cause to suspect that discrimination is at work develops only over time. Comparative pay information, moreover, is often hidden from the employee’s view.” Ginsburg added that employees might be hesitant to claim pay discrimination, especially if they hold a role more commonly occupied by another gender, because they don’t want to cause a stir.

She called directly on Congress to amend Title VII and took the unusual step of reading her dissent out loud from the bench in an effort to draw attention to the issue. As The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin noted in a 2013 profile of Ginsburg, she also rewrote the dissent she read from the bench in language more accessible to the general public. The dramatics, Toobin wrote, gave the relatively unnoticed case national attention.

In 2009, Congress did amend the law, which now resets the clock for employees to sue after each individual paycheck.


"There are those who claim that what’s really important is economic issues like the salary gap—equal pay for equal work. Why do women still make less than men, on the average, and why, if efforts are made to equalize salaries in a given setting, is it only a few years before the women’s pay once again falls behind?

This too can be a matter of ways of speaking, since anything you get depends on talking. Marjorie and Lawrence Nadler suspected that getting raises, promotions, and other advantages depends on people’s ability to negotiate, and that women might be at a disadvantage in this regard.

They tested this by asking 174 students to role-play negotiations for salary, and sure enough, they found that the women in their study ended up with lower raises than men.

The researchers turned up a slew of other fascinating results too: On the average, male students role-playing supervisors gave lower raises than females in the same role, even though the males started out by offering more than the females. In other words, the women playing supervisors raised their offers much more as a result of negotiation.

Even more interesting, and more worrisome, male students playing supervisors ended up giving higher raises to male student-subordinates, though this may be related to the fact that male student-subordinates made higher initial demands than females did. In the end, the lowest raises were negotiated by female students playing subordinates in negotiation with males as bosses.

This does not mean that differences in ways of speaking are the only reason for the salary gap. Nadler and Nadler found not only that men in their role-plays ended up with higher raises than women as the outcome of negotiation, but that men were offered higher raises to start with, before negotiation. Most distressing, the lowest initial offers were made by female students playing supervisors negotiating with females as subordinates. It could be that the women started with low offers to women because they knew they would raise the offers as a result of negotiation. In the end, the researchers found that higher final offers were made when the negotiators were of the same sex."