Aileen Rizo was working as a math consultant at the Fresno County Office of Education when she found out that her male colleague was being paid significantly more than her for the same work. Aileen even had more experience and education than this colleague.
What began as a fight for herself quickly turned into a fight for equality for women everywhere. Aileen talks with host Shannon Cason about the tough decisions she had to make and how the legal battle unfolded.
On realizing that she was being underpaid
Aileen Rizo: It was July 31, 2012. We had had a business lunch and we were still sitting around the table — me, the only woman, and three other males. And one of the males had just signed on to work full time with the county office.
He told the other males, “I just signed my contract, and they gave me step 9.” And there’s a 10 step salary scale, so it starts at 1 and ends at 10. And when I heard him say that he signed in at 9, I remember just being so shocked. Kind of like almost time stopped for me there.
I was at 4, because I had started at 1. I was just trying to figure out how it happened. Why am I at 4? And it was because I had worked with him previously that I knew that when I had come to the county office, I had my master’s degree, and he didn’t have one. And I knew that [as far as] seniority, I had been there for four years, and I had more experience and had been a teacher longer. So I was thinking, well how did this happen? I think that question was just ringing in my head. How is that even possible?
I felt like I was part of this picture. And then someone just tore me out of it. Because I felt like I was part of that math department in equal footing. Even though I was the only woman, I never looked at that as anything that would impact who I was or the work I did. And for the first time, it was like, wait a minute. I thought I was sitting at the table. But I’m actually not.
On taking the issue to HR
Rizo: I decided to talk with the HR administrator and I made an appt with her. In my mind, I had convinced myself that she was going to fix this because that’s the only way to justify it — that it was just a mistake.
So I went to her office, and she said, “Well we have a formula: We take your previous salary and we had 5 percent to it. Your salary was so low, but we still gave you step 1.”
She said it to me like I should be grateful … She said it like it was over. Like I was going to stand up and walk away. And I looked at her and I said, “But there’s an Equal Pay Act that says you can’t pay a woman and a man different or the woman less for the same job.”
So she said, “give me a week to investigate this and I’ll get back to you.” And that week turned into two weeks … But when we got to three weeks, she didn’t call me, and I called her, but no answer. So after four weeks, I wrote an email and said, “Maybe I need to find some legal recourse because what I thought would be quickly resolved is taking a lot longer.”
[Then, she sent me a letter that] just said we’re not going to change your placement on the salary scale, this is the way our policy works. We know you feel slighted, but that’s the way it’s going to be.
On deciding to take legal action
Rizo: I remember when I got to my door, and my girls ran to the door — and they greeted me like they did every day — except that day, I remember thinking, what if this was them? What if it was them getting paid less for the same work? When they had already worked so hard in their field? I think that was the first time I considered that the choices I made as a mother and as a woman in the workplace would affect other children, or other girls, and my own daughters. I think that moment for me, coming home, really solidified that I was going to fight this. Because I knew that if I didn’t, that the world I left to them would treat them the same way.
Rizo: I was nervous. I felt that I stood on the right ground though, so I was a little bit more sure of myself. Like, how could they justify this? There was no way. It just seemed so black and white. But at the same time, I thought: What if they fire me? I needed to provide for my family, that was the biggest thing at stake. As the sole breadwinner, that was my responsibility. The month before, we had just moved into our first house. And we had been in an apartment before that. Am I going to cost my family much more than it’s worth? And I was a little bit naive, too, because I didn’t understand how long the courts take with things like this. I thought it would be a lot sooner. And it’s been years and years.
On continuing to work during the lawsuit
Rizo: I felt supported at first, I think very early on. I let my colleagues know that I was filing a lawsuit so they didn’t hear it secondhand. But when the media got ahold of it, then attitudes changed.
Rizo: When NBC showed it on the nightly news, I probably became the elephant in the room. No one wanted to talk about that. Some people didn’t want to talk to me. Gradually, it would become a difficult work environment. After depositions, that made it even worse. Because I was sitting across the table, and it was almost like I was putting my coworkers on edge and putting them through something that they felt really uncomfortable about. So it just gradually became harder.
When I had my second daughter, I was at the county office, and I was given a bridal shower, a lot of gifts — normal things when you have a coworker who has a baby. When I had my third daughter, I didn’t even get a card. So that was a big indication of where I stood. And where the relationship was.
On the 9th Circuit Courts decision in April 2018
Rizo: The en banc 9th Circuit Court decided that you cannot use prior salary to base someone’s salary. You can’t use it to justify a wage differential, and it can’t even be one of the factors. So they actually not only overturned the three justices, but they also overturned that previous case that was used to justify it. So they went even farther than we expected. What that means for all the women who live in the 9th District and all these states is that your prior salary can’t be used against you anymore.
Shannon Cason: What did you feel in that moment?
Rizo: It just felt great to be part of history. To be part of changing the world for the better. And that all that sacrifice was worth it.
On what the 9th Circuit ruling means for her daughters
Rizo: I think it’s so important for my daughter. I think what has impacted them the most is how long it has taken. My youngest daughter is now 3, so this has been all of her life. My other daughters, though, see how long it’s been, how many times we’ve traveled to places, and they’ve asked me several times:Does it really take this long to just get equal pay?
And I think that’s a question so many women are asking across the country. Does it really take this long? We’ve been waiting over 50 years for the Equal Pay Act to work. And sitting around waiting for something to work isn’t the way we solve problems. I mean, it’s not the way a mathematician solves problems. It’s not the way anyone should be solving problems.
So we’re trying to be purposeful. We’re trying to address it. And sometimes, it takes a lawsuit, and sometimes, it takes advocacy work in your own state when Congress or D.C. won’t move on something. So it’s going to be a big impact on their futures if we can keep moving forward.
These interview highlights have been edited for brevity and clarity by Candace Mittel Kahn.