I can’t say why the scattering of professors, adults and students were at Lilly Ledbetter’s speech Wednesday night, but I have a guess. Her name is now synonymous with the first bill President Barack Obama signed into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

When I told my friends that I was going to see Ledbetter talk, they gave me a weird look and I quickly had to follow with, “Oh, you know, it’s that woman whose name is on that one bill Obama signed about fair pay.” She’s almost a quasi-political celebrity now, and I went to see her speak for the same reason most other people probably did: to say I saw her talk. This woman has very little in common with me except that she’s vocal about feminist ideals: She’s 75, from a small town in Alabama and worked as an overnight supervisor at Goodyear. I doubt that many students on campus, including myself, can say that they strongly identify with her.

Yet, as she told her story, there was one part specifically that many students can identify with. When Ledbetter found out that she was making less than half of what her fellow male employees were making, she understandably just wanted to quit her job. But because she had student loans to pay back, dinner to put on the table and bills to pay, she couldn’t fathom not receiving a paycheck for even one week. For the seniors out there, this could literally be us in six months time. Scary, right? The prospect of not being able to quit a job because you can’t afford to not work is frightening.

And then, add on the fact that if you’re a woman college graduate, you’re probably making significantly less than your male peers. A 2012 report by the American Association of University Women shows that women one year out of college working full time were making, on average, 82 percent of what their male peers were making. After controlling for “occupation, college major, employment sector, and other factors associated with pay,” the pay gap does shrink, but it doesn’t disappear. The wage gap isn’t a problem reserved for women who grew up in the Deep South in the ‘40s. This could very well affect many of us in less than a year’s time.

However, the problem is more complicated than women simply making less than their male counterparts. It’s that women are less likely to work in careers that typically pay more, such as engineering and finance.

Universities, for their part, are trying. For example, the Harvard Business School noticed a trend with their women students: They were falling behind their male peers quickly. Additionally, a third of their female junior faculty left between 2006 and 2007.

Harvard decided to give “itself a gender makeover.” The school tried to change the way students spoke and socialized with each other by installing stenographers in classrooms to guard against biased grading and providing private coaching to untenured female professors. This was met with some backlash, and after implementing the changes, one male student said it had “been a painful experience.” So much for progress.

The problem is sadly societal. Legislation can only pass if people actually recognize and are discouraged by this discrimination. Most don’t — and sex discrimination is being actively perpetuated everywhere, from a Goodyear plant to a Harvard Business School classroom. Ledbetter’s talk reminded us that, as many of us enter the workforce in the next few years, there’s no guarantee that we’re going to be paid fairly. And there’s also no guarantee that we’re going to recognize this, let alone be financially stable enough to quit our jobs if we do. What’s encouraging is that the University is bringing people like Ledbetter to this campus. As much as we might not readily identify with her specific situation, even her presence causes a conversation that we all need to be having.

Adrienne Roberts can be reached at adrirobe@umich.edu

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