Crystal Graham: Lilly Ledbetter’s story is my story

Crystal Clear column by Crystal Graham

It had been a long time since I thought about women’s rights, particularly equality when it comes to pay.

It certainly hasn’t been a deciding issue in this election – not for me, anyway.

And yet Lilly Ledbetter sparked my memory when she talked Wednesday at a Michelle Obama rally in Charlottesville about Goodyear paying her less than her male counterparts in her time on the production line.

Ledbetter’s story reminded me of my first job after college at a newspaper in the Shenandoah Valley. Months after I arrived to take on a lifestyles-editor position, a male was hired in as a copy and layout editor. With our managing editor having recently been fired, and our city editor soon on maternity leave, it was often up to the male editor and myself to knock out the entire newspaper every day. Fresh from college, I was humbled that the newspaper entrusted me with such a big job.

At this particular chain newspaper, how much reporters and editors were paid was a closely guarded secret.

When I found out that the new copy and layout editor was making more money than me, it was like a brutal slap in the face.

I was hired before him with an equal amount of experience. How had he managed to negotiate more money than me?

I have never been one to not stand up for my rights – and the first chance I had, I marched myself into the publisher’s office and let him have it. I insisted that I immediately be brought up to the same level of pay as my coworker. In the end, I got the pay increase. But there was no talk of backpay, despite months of getting underpaid, at least as far as I was concerned.

So I worked on, satisfied that I was finally getting paid what I deserved and still a little disgruntled about not getting backpay.

Within months, my one-year review came up at the paper. I fully expected the normal raise – around 5 percent for most newsroom employees.

But the cards didn’t play in my favor.

To my utter shock, I was told that I had just gotten a raise.

We were back to square one. I decided that if the company didn’t value me more than that, it was time to move on.

And so I gave my two-week notice. And never looked back.

My mom had her own story of equality in the workplace. In her mid-50s, she was in an upper-level management job for a large manufacturing plant in the Valley. She handled human resources for the company and was told time and time again by shift supervisors not to hire women to work the machines. She didn’t listen, and stood her ground. If a woman could meet the requirements for the job, she hired them.

She also got the short end of the stick. When the plant was sold, she was told her job had been eliminated. But after she left the plant, a male was brought in to replace her. In the end, all of the females in management positions were eliminated. It was the women they wanted out. Their jobs remained.

In my Pollyanna view of the world, I couldn’t believe that things like this happened in the world today. And time and time again, personal experience has proven me wrong.

Hearing stories like Ledbetter’s remind me of how unfair the system is in the workplace. I’m a firm believer that there needs to be more visibility in the workplace. It shouldn’t be a crime or grounds for dismissal to discuss pay around the job site. What are people hiding to enact such policies?

So while I said at the beginning of this column that women’s equality wasn’t what was driving me to the polls on Election Day, I reserve the right to change my mind. And I’m doing just that.

In this day and age, I like to believe that we live in a world where women are treated equally to men – and yet if I said that, I’d be ignoring the last 10 years of my life.

So, do I think women’s rights should be discussed in reference to the election? Yes, I do.

Lilly Ledbetter said that her story could be anyone’s, and her story is my story. And my mom’s story. And likely your story.

I’m ready to write a new chapter.

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