What you don’t know about how much your colleagues earn can hurt you. Ask Lilly Ledbetter

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A few weeks ago, I got an invitation from the president of my company to a breakfast meeting. Ann Moore asked me, as well as a handful of top women editors at our other magazines, to meet a woman I’d never heard of: Lilly Ledbetter. Oh, and Anita Hill.

Hill came to lend her support to Ledbetter’s cause. Since I’d received the invite, I’d learned a lot more about Ledbetter. She had sued her longtime employer, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., for pay discrimination. Her case got all the way to the Supreme Court, where—in a 5-4 decision—she lost.

Here’s her case: Ledbetter worked for almost 20 years as a supervisor in an Alabama tire plant. During that time, she was paid far less than her male colleagues—a fact she was blissfully unaware of until someone slipped her a note showing the discrepancy. Stunned, she took the company to court, where a jury awarded her over $3 million in damages. She hasn’t seen a penny. Why? Because the Supreme Court decided, on appeal, that Ledbetter had missed the 180-day statute of limitations on making her complaint—and that the clock started ticking the day she was hired.

Got that? So if you don’t make a formal complaint of discriminatory pay within six months of the time your pay was decided, you don’t have a case. Never mind that most of us have no idea what our colleagues make, and certainly not within months of our hiring.

Ledbetter, a sweet-voiced, kind-eyed Southern granny, didn’t take this decision lying down. Though she’s deeply in the red thanks to the court outcomes, she’s made it her personal crusade to both publicize the law and change it. Today, the Senate votes on the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would eliminate this crazy time limit on righting an institutional wrong. Read more about her case at the web site of the National Women’s Law Center. Here’s a blog post she co-wrote on HuffPo. Here’s a video on her case: