Aileen Rizo was working as a math consultant at the Fresno County Office of Education when she discovered a recently hired male colleague was being paid significantly more than her for the same work. Aileen 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 talked about the tough decisions she made for herself and her family on a recent episode of the WBEZ podcast The Trouble.
Here’s what happened: First, Aileen filed an internal complaint with her employer’s HR department. It was initially avoided and eventually dismissed. Second, she made the difficult decision to file a lawsuit against her employer for gender discrimination and violation of the Equal Pay Act. Her case went all the way up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit — a step below the Supreme Court — which ruled against her last year. The thrust of her employer’s argument? That Aileen’s salary at her previous job was the basis for her lower salary, not her experience, education, or gender.
But Aileen was persistent. After another appeal and a rehearing in front of a full bench of 11 judges in April, the 9th Circuit reversed its decision, ruling that prior salary “cannot justify a wage differential between male and female employees.”
She’d won the battle. But even after all that — more than six years of litigation — the ruling still did not address the details of Aileen’s case. Instead, it signalled that her lawsuit was at last justified.
“The courts have issued that my case should go back to trial, that now a jury should decide my reward, the pay that I’ve lost, and the back pay on that,” Aileen said on The Trouble. “But if they appeal — and they’ve said publicly that they will — it’ll go to the Supreme Court. Then the story keeps going, and we don’t know what will happen.”
On this week’s Nerdette, you’ll hear this exceptional episode of The Trouble in full, followed by a conversation between Shannon Cason, host of The Trouble, and Nerdette’s Greta Johnsen. Below are highlights from Greta and Shannon’s conversation.
Greta Johnsen: What was your big takeaway after talking with Aileen about all this stuff?
Shannon Cason: My takeaway from it was that she fought for what she believed in. I mean, many times you’ll have a feeling. It’s like a discord in you. And many times you let it pass because of whatever’s in your mind, and you don’t want to cause a fuss, or you don’t want to cause a stink, or you don’t want to feel uncomfortable. But she actually fought through that feeling to go for something that she knew was right. Right is right. And many times we’ll talk ourselves out of “right is right.” And she actually made the right decisions, to fight for it.
Johnsen: That’s the thing that keeps sticking with me, the idea that it’s the person who’s being oppressed who also has to deal with the burden of fighting for what’s right. Even she talks about how many other women before her had noticed that they weren’t getting paid as much, but who felt like they couldn’t do anything about it, and how it really does take that person to be willing to go into debt — to hire lawyers, to fight these fights, to not spend as much time with their kids as they want to — to be able to make change that’s positive for everybody else too.
Cason: It’s like a switch. It’s about you, and then at some point it switches over to where it’s about the principle. There’s principles to this. Sometimes when I’m fighting for something, I’m fighting for myself. But then at certain points, I’m like, “Nah, this can’t happen, because of the principle, not so much me.” And I think she switched over to a fight for just what is right.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire episode, which was produced by Candace Mittel Kahn and adapted for the web by Justin Bull.