Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

June 2014

Lilly Ledbetter, the Woman Behind the Fair Pay Act

By Susan Sarfati
help other women in the same situation. Organizations should post compensation and include cost-of-living raises. Many workplaces demand that employees not discuss their pay so employees are in the dark.

You obviously march to the beat of your own drummer. What advice would you give women about the balance of being your own person versus trying to fit into an organization?

Never forget where you came from. Never forget who you are. Be true to yourself. I was brought up an only child in a very poor county. I did not think that I should have had to pick cotton for so many hours or snap beans or shuck corn. It was cruel and inhuman treatment. It taught me to always look for something better. Improving needs to be what drives people.

You say that you “gave Goodyear the power to define you and your self-worth.” Can you talk about that, and how you took the bold step to define yourself?

The moment came when I saw the anonymous note. That was the most devastating time in my life. I was embarrassed. How could I face people in the factory by staying for my 12-hour shift? Yet, I couldn’t just walk out and quit. I thought about all the overtime hours I wasn’t paid for and how my retirement would be hurt.

I stood up for myself and then became even angrier when I heard about what other people were facing. I was not alone. People supported and helped me by providing plane tickets for my travel to Washington, D.C., and in many other ways. I was called the poster child for equal pay for equal work. I got men’s attention, too. They said, “I have a mother who wasn’t treated well, I have a wife who wasn’t treated well, and I have daughters who weren’t treated right.”

Goodyear gave me a management job, which I held for 19 years. I ran a good shift. I managed it like it was my own business. I did everything that benefited my company. Now what about me?   

People in the meetings profession are always talking about life balance. As “light-footed Lilly,” you chose dancing as a new interest and became quite accomplished at it. Can you talk about what making time to do something you enjoyed meant to your life?

I always wanted to learn ballroom dancing. But I didn’t have the courage to get up and jump around with men — I knew that I needed lessons. So I started taking lessons and competed for eight years in competitions around the country. I concentrated on becoming the best, and liked the social part of dancing. Being a dancer was the turning point for me at Goodyear. When I had to telephone a male worker in the middle of the night to come to work, usually the wife answered. Especially with a name like Lilly Ledbetter, these wives got very suspicious. So I asked one of the janitors to get the men on the phone, and then I would speak to them.  

After an article in the Goodyear employee newspaper included details about my ballroom dancing, it gave the wives something to talk to me about, so I was able to place these calls on my own.

Don’t just do your job. Get passionate about some hobby, and make time for it. Have something to talk about except for work. It makes you a more interesting person and increases your self-esteem.

Susan Sarfati, CAE, is CEO of High Performance Strategies LLC, which focuses on organizational assessments, innovative thinking in organizational strategy, leadership and management, moving from ideas to execution, and building a human-focused learning culture. She served as CEO of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives and executive vice president of ASAE. She can be reached at susan@ssarfati.com.

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