by Dina Lassow
Once again, the Supreme Court has delivered a blow to women—this time courtesy of an opinion written by Justice Alito that limits women’s ability to challenge pay discrimination against them. In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, Justice Alito, writing for a slim majority in a 5-4 decision, said that Lilly Ledbetter should not have been able to sue to challenge the proven sex-based pay discrimination for which a jury had awarded her damages under Title VII. She had lost that right because she had not challenged her lower pay soon enough after the discrimination began—even though she continued to be paid less than her male colleagues by escalating amount, with every paycheck she got.
This result is tremendously damaging to women—and, indeed, to all who are subject to discrimination in pay. It also ignores the realities of the workplace. Women may not initially know that they are being paid less than men; in fact, some employers bar employees from discussing their paychecks with their colleagues. Even if women do know and are suspicious of the reasons they are paid less, they may want to try to work it and not to immediately take their employers to court.
The consequences of pay discrimination are profound.
To this day, women earn less than men in virtually every occupation and job category, at every age and stage in their employment, and for every hour worked. On average, women earn only about 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. In addition, the wage gap expands over the course of a woman’s working life, putting a woman at a serious economic disadvantage. Pay discrimination is responsible for a significant portion of this gap. Now, the Supreme Court has made it harder for women to challenge their employers and try to close the wage gap.
Unfortunately, we were not surprised that the decision in Ledbetter was written by Justice Alito. We opposed Justice Alito’s nomination for the seat vacated by Justice O’Connor in part because his decisions on employment discrimination cases when he was a Court of Appeals judge were extremely troubling. The Ledbetter opinion, with its overly narrow interpretation of Title VII, confirms our concerns and shows the impact of a single vote. Women deserve better.