Jill Abramson has yet to write about her experience. I can understand her reticence. It’s taken me 30 years to write about mine.
By now, Abramson’s story is well known. The New York Times executive editor was abruptly fired from “The Gray Lady” on May 14. While the reasons are the topic of considerable speculation, the focus has been on underlying gender issues and whether she was compensated as well as her male predecessor.
While I have never been fired from a job, I do know what it’s like to speak up about pay inequity. The mere act of complaining can be a nightmare. In fact, the experience of bringing a pay discrimination lawsuit against my employer was far worse than the insult of being paid less than a male counterpart.
I moved to Washington in 1978 at age 20 with the dream of breaking into journalism. I was hired by a family-owned weekly newspaper where I not only learned to be a journalist but also was “adopted” by the husband and wife owners, who were the same age as my parents. I spent weekends at their home, babysat their children and had regular bylines in the paper. My assignments included covering the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace deal, interviewing Andy Warhol and exposing fraud at a local nonprofit, for which I was named news writer of the year by a national organization. I was at the top of my game.
In 1983, the paper was sold. From the start, the new publisher routinely called the female employees “sweet pea.” Soon after, a male reporter was hired to do the same job as me — at 60 percent more than I was making. When I mentioned this to friends in the legal community, they encouraged me to file a lawsuit under the Equal Pay Act, a federal law established to abolish wage disparity based on sex.
With pro bono support from the Women’s Legal Defense Fund and a husband who had just graduated from law school cheering me on, I went to court. I felt empowered.
But not for long.
During the discovery process, I sat with my lawyer while the newspaper’s attorneys asked me one outrageous question after another. Had I ever visited the previous owner at his home? Did I ever sleep over at his house? Wasn’t it true that, when he decided to sell the newspaper and move away, I was heartbroken because I had been in love with him? The lawsuit, they charged, was my way of getting back at the new owner.
It got worse. The depositions revealed that my co-worker had negotiated a salary that was based on what he was making at a previous job. In other words, my lawyer explained, a loophole in the law permitted my employer to pay him much more because the market valued him more highly.
I was dumbfounded. Yet there was more. My lawyer explained that I ran the risk of setting a bad precedent if I went to court and lost. The only palatable solution was to withdraw the suit. When I reluctantly accepted that as my fate, the publisher offered to pay my legal fees — as long as I would agree to issue a public apology to the newspaper. Having thrown down the gauntlet by filing suit, I was not going to apologize for sticking up for my rights and my gender. Not coincidentally, my next job was working at a national women’s organization.
My two daughters are now around the age I was when I arrived in Washington three decades ago with those big dreams. What does the future look like for them? We can only hope it won’t take another 30 years to get to the point where we have equal pay for equal work.
Janice L. Kaplan is a D.C.-based writer and communications consultant.