Last year, the Tory Burch Foundation held its first-ever Embrace Ambition Summit with the likes of Margaret Atwood, Lindsey Vonn, and Yara Shahidi, who each spoke about women’s rights, confronting stereotypes, and, of course, embracing their own ambition. This year, Burch hosted a series of #EmbraceAmbition events across the country: On Monday, the events kicked off in Philadelphia, then zigzagged to Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco, and will conclude tonight in Brooklyn with a panel at the Brooklyn Museum. Can you think of a better way to spend International Women’s Day? Tonight, Burch will be joined by artists Marilyn Minter and Le’Andra LeSeur, as well as another boundary-breaking woman: Lilly Ledbetter—she of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
For the uninitiated, a brief summary: Ledbetter was the plaintiff in an anti-discrimination case against her employer, Goodyear, starting in 1998. By that time, she’d worked for Goodyear for nearly 20 years and learned (through a whistleblower) that she was earning up to 40 percent less than her male colleagues in the same, or lower, position. The case dragged on until 2007, when the verdict ruled in Goodyear’s favor based on a technicality in the law. But Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg challenged the ruling and advocated for the law to be changed. In a matter of days, the house began working on a bill, and in January of 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed. It was President Obama’s first official piece of legislation.
In the decade since, Ledbetter has continued to fight for equal pay for women and minorities. By inviting her to speak at tonight’s event, Burch will familiarize potentially millions of young women with Ledbetter’s story; 450 people will be in attendance, but the panel will be live-streamed globally (including here on the Vogue site; the above player will go live at 6:00 p.m. EST). “This will wake up a lot of people who may not realize there are avenues open to them,” Ledbetter said on a call from her home in Alabama. “It will help them understand how critical it is to pursue their dreams and get paid what they’re entitled to.”
Ledbetter spoke to Vogue about her own experience, what people still don’t understand about equal pay, and who she’s most excited to meet tonight.
What are you excited to talk about with Tory Burch and your other panelists?
I’ve been involved in some great events since 2009, but this will reach so many people around the world, and by reaching these women, it also reaches the men. My message is really just how important it is to have equal pay for equal work. When women don’t demand that they get their equal pay, it impacts their families, their communities, and their retirement. I must stress this so they understand—down the road, you might be able to correct a few things [from your past], but once you lose that money, it’s gone forever.
What occurred in my life and my experience, I like to describe it as the tip of the iceberg. Because there are so, so very many people in the situation I have lived. When you don’t get your rightful pay, like I said, it goes on for the rest of your life, and in some cases, that means people like myself have to move into their children’s homes because they don’t get enough retirement to stay independent.
How can women go about getting equal pay at their employer?
When I look back, it would have been wonderful to know exactly what I know today. I would have been better off than I am. I worked for a corporation that said I couldn’t discuss my pay with colleagues, and I tried my best to find out where I stood. After 19 years of working for them, we went to federal court and I was awarded $3.8 million to try to make up for the wages I had lost and future retirement. But the Supreme Court ruled against it, so I never got a dime. And I never will get an increase. It’s extremely difficult to make ends meet today on my low retirement, so really, women need to know exactly what is occurring at their place of employment and what the rate of pay is [at their level].
What do you say when people try to make the argument that equal pay is no longer an issue?
Women get locked into positions where they can’t pursue what they know is the right thing. I tell them to do the math. I talked to a women who was promoted to a position the company had wanted a male for, but they promoted her and raised her pay, but they shorted her by $40,000 less than what the man would have made. And she couldn’t do anything about it. I said, “Why didn’t you go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and complain?” And she said, “If I had, I’d be back as a secretary or looking for a job, and I’m a single mother and the difference in a secretary’s pay is $50,000, but I need the extra money to save for retirement and pay for my daughter’s education.” So that’s what locks women in—they can’t do anything about it.
The Equal Pay [Act] was signed in 1963, and there have never been any updates to it. Sometimes I’ll go to colleges and the students say we don’t need to hear from an equal pay advocate because we have that law. But the problem is, it’s never been enforced or adhered to. April 2 is Equal Pay Day, which marks the time it takes for a white woman to earn what a white man earned the year before. For black women, that day comes in August, and for Hispanic women, it’s even later. That is a crying shame. The law was passed in ’63, but we still haven’t gained more than this.
What can women do if they aren’t able to talk about their pay at work or they’re worried they will lose their job?
I try to stress to young women that they should get a mentor at work and find someone they trust totally who will guide them along the way. That helps more than anything, to have someone to support you. Now, women are more supportive of each other than ever before. In the last 10 years I’ve seen women supporting women, and that is so wonderful, because there was a time when women did not support each other like they should.
I think programs like Tory Burch’s are bringing that about, and they’re making it known that women should support each other and have a voice. And it’s been proven that it works. The companies that have changed their policies for people’s pay and reevaluate what they bring to the table means so much. Their bottom line and their net profit is better, the quality of their products and services is better. It’s already a proven concept, because people who are enthusiastic about their jobs and what they’re doing are always looking to make it better. Those are the people with the ambition that we want to get out helping others and pulling them up.
Do you think this will be a talking point in the upcoming election? Are there candidates you believe will make a difference?
I always try to stress that this isn’t about politics—the Ledbetter bill was voted into law by both Republicans and Democrats. We do need more women in politics in Washington, though, and more women in our state and community politics. That will make a difference, and young women are learning what they need to do to become politicians. They’re getting out there and supporting. But the problem with politicians [in elections] is usually that large corporations don’t want to get behind this cause, and they’re big money. So that prevents a lot of politicians from stepping up in the beginning, but I think they will this time.
[On a federal level] it takes a lot of enforcement to make sure the laws are being adhered to by employers. But so many states have passed their own equal pay laws—New Jersey, Delaware, California. They can control how women and minorities are paid and make sure the laws are followed, and that’s helped this country. In my case, I worked for a company that had big government contracts, and you’d think they would have been held accountable for certain laws, like Equal Pay and Title VII, in order to get the contracts. But they weren’t—they were just awarded the contracts.
Going forward, the main thing is that we need a louder voice on corporate boards. Having more women on those boards would help a great deal. It would be so beneficial to the employers too, and will influence the best employees to follow those corporations and apply with them. If I was younger, I’d want to apply for a job in New Jersey so I’d be assured I’d get my rightful pay. Or I would love to have worked for the Tory Burch group, because they understand this, and they have for a long time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.