The Power Behind the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009

To: Interested Parties

From: Kate Black, Vice President of Research, EMILY’s List

On January 29, 2009 President Obama signed his very first bill into law: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. The bill backed employees’ right to sue employers for gender discrimination in their wages by effectively resetting the statute of limitations with every paycheck where discrimination occurred.

Since the law’s enactment, the gender wage gap has narrowed by a very small margin. Economists would say we’ve seen statistically insignificant changes in the gap over time.

While the words “statistically insignificant” may sound disheartening, I believe other data points show the true power of Lilly Ledbetter’s story. Three data points underscore the growing conversation, and the larger dialogue and political relevancy, of fighting for equal pay for equal work.

1. More Of Us Are Asking Questions. According to Google Trends, the phrase “gender wage gap” has continued to be searched by users at higher and higher rates in the United States since 2007. In fact, relative to other searches, the top search in April 2015 was “gender wage gap.”

One of the key ways to fight gender discrimination in pay is to talk about how much we earn. But we don’t talk about our pay and often, we never know how much we earn compared to others. Lilly Ledbetter did not find out she had been earning less than her male coworkers until someone left her an anonymous note. This is not just about being polite. Many offices have official or unofficial rules against talking about our salaries, rules that if broken, can lead to disciplinary action.

In an age where asking about our pay could get one fired, looking to Google for the facts about the “gender wage gap” can be a good place to start the conversation. And the good news is, more and more of us are asking the right questions.

This growing conversation by Americans about gender discrimination in pay has led to two outcomes: a growing dialogue in the media and an impact on political campaigns.

2. The Media Opts In. An analysis of unique mentions of “equal pay” highlights the media’s growing coverage of this critical issue. It is evident from the chart below, representing those unique mentions in U.S. publications, that Americans’ interest in, conversations about, and action on equal pay has sparked an upward trend in media coverage.

3. Candidates Take Notice, Voters Agree. A review of the 2014 elections showed that 23 percent of federal and gubernatorial candidates discussed equal pay on their websites. Not only were over one-fifth of candidates advocating for equal pay, but voters agreed. According to the study, conducted by the National Partnership for Women & Families, in models that controlled for variables like incumbency, competitiveness of the race, or political party, candidates who advocated for equal pay and one other economic security issue, like paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, or pregnancy discrimination, were eight percent more likely to win.

From Hollywood to the presidential campaign trail, to kitchen tables and employee breakrooms, equal pay is getting noticed, talked about, and debated. But it’s not enough.

Women earn 79 cents for every dollar paid to men. African American women earn 60 cents. Latinas earn 55 cents. Right as they start their careers, young women earn just 90 cents compared to their male coworkers. Across hundreds of jobs –actors, nurses, high school teachers, financial planners — women earn less than what they should.

As we celebrate the seventh anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009’s enactment, it is critical not only to commemorate where we have been but recognize how far we still have to go.

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