Making the case for pay equity


Gracie Bonds Staples is an award-winning journalist who has been writing for daily newspapers since 1979, when she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000 after stints at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Sacramento Bee, Raleigh Times and two Mississippi dailies. Staples was recently promoted to Senior Features Enterprise Writer. Look for her columns Thursdays and Saturdays in Living and alternating Sundays in Metro.

One of her attorneys said getting Lisa Shipley’s day in court was like having her crawl across broken glass.

It didn’t matter that she made hundreds of millions of dollars for the company she’d worked for for 12 years; that when it came to sales, she was like a shooting star in a male-dominated industry.

Shipley had the nerve to believe that she should be treated like her male peers and she deserved equal pay for equal work.

That didn’t happen and when she’d had enough, she did what few women ever do. The Marietta mother fought back and won.

After the trial was over in 2012, a reporter for a legal magazine called her attorney. He told them “they tried everything they could to win this claim, to demean her, to bankrupt her. And she prevailed because she was right.”

Thank God.

If you’ve been wondering about all the excitement around that Patricia Arquette moment at the Oscars, why women got so excited, this is it.

Arquette, who won best supporting actress for her role in “Boyhood,” used her acceptance speech to tell the audience — and the world — what women have been saying for years, what Shipley has been saying with regularity since her day in court: “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

“I screamed when she said it,” Shipley said.

So did I and nearly every other woman in America watching that night because workplace discrimination remains a dirty little secret. Did y’all see Meryl Streep?

After the show, Arquette made it clear she wasn’t talking about her own position.

“What I was talking about,” she said, “is the other 52 percent, and how it doesn’t make sense why they’re being discriminated (against) because of their gender.”

Shipley has been trying to make that point for years. She realizes, perhaps, better than anyone what’s at stake here. We’re leaning in but we’ve just about fallen out of our chairs and it’s not getting any easier for our daughters.

Until 2007, when she got a new boss, Shipley had enjoyed a lucrative career as a global managing director at Hypercom, a company that designed, manufactured and sold credit card processing equipment.

“I was one of the guys,” she said.

Her seventh and newest boss didn’t see it quite that way. He excluded her from key meetings. When it was her turn to give a presentation, he always walked out in the middle of it. On the rare occasion when he spoke to her, he was abrasive.

“I just felt in my heart and soul that he didn’t like me and it was because I was a woman,” Shipley said.

That same year, Shipley found out that the majority of her male peers were making $50,000 or more annually than she was, that they had cars, apartments, stock, severance packages.

She had none of these same benefits.

She decided to cut her losses and take a job from a competitor.

That would’ve been the end of it except when she got her commission check in the mail, it was about $70,000 short.

“They gave me $30,000,” she said. “That was the last straw. I was not going to roll over and play dead.”

Shipley sued for gender discrimination.

Her old boss fought back. He and Hypercom sued her.

A single mother, Shipley almost gave up but instead struck a deal with her attorney and the fight continued.

Four years later in December 2012, she got her day in court. It took the jury just five hours to make a decision.

Shipley sobbed as the judge read each of the verdicts.

Did they discriminate against her based on her gender?

Did they retaliate against her by filing a lawsuit?

Did they not provide her with severance and other benefits?

The jury said yes, yes, yes, and awarded Shipley $1.5 million even though the maximum under Georgia law was $450,000. Even though the judge gave her another $150,000, Shipley didn’t even break even.

“I walked away with nothing but a victory, but it was all that mattered,” she said. “I got to tell women to stand up for what they believe in.”

At 54, she says we haven’t fixed much, that women still take no for an answer too easily.

That might be true, but so is the fact that a lot of us aren’t accepting no. We’re now heads of companies and working on construction sites and running plays on the gridiron.

And the best part — our daughters aren't feeling the pressure to stay in their place as much as we once did. Remember little Mo'ne Davis, whose 70 mph fastball sent her team to the Little League World Series last summer? Soon, she'll be the subject of a Disney Channel movie.

Talk about girl power!

As fast as her balls flew through the air, Davis’ opponents could see them. Discrimination is different. Discrimination is like the wind. You know it’s there, you can feel it, but it’s not always obvious to everyone.

That’s why Shipley had to share her story, to write it in a book — “Crawling Across Broken Glass” — and as often as asked to speak on the topic. She wants every woman this side of heaven to know what gender discrimination looks like, what they can do about it and what changes in the law are needed so women can get the justice they deserve.

It would’ve been easy for her to retreat, but boy am I glad she hasn’t. She’s just fighting differently these days.

For the sake of the rest of us and our daughters, I hope she never stops.