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How a teen lifeguard took on the gender pay gap — and what she gained

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4 days ago Karla Miller

Regular readers of this column may remember a letter last summer from a female teenage lifeguard who discovered that she was being paid less per hour than same-age male lifeguards with the same experience, in possible violation of federal anti-discrimination laws. After she requested that her pay be made equal, the pool management company changed almost everyone’s pay rates, including reducing the boys’ pay — a no-no under the Equal Pay Act. The teen and two other lifeguards ended up quitting in protest over the company’s pay policies.

Shortly after she wrote to me, Grace, who is being identified by her first name only to protect her privacy, filed a complaint online with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Last November, about three months after Grace filed the initial complaint, an EEOC investigator contacted her for a telephone interview.

Female teen lifeguard protesting unequal pay finds support

Grace explained why she thought she had been illegally discriminated against, supporting her claims with copies of emails she had exchanged with the pool management company and other documentation. A week later, the EEOC investigator had drafted a charge of discrimination against the management company and, with her approval, submitted it. In January, the EEOC contacted her to schedule a mediation session with the pool management company.

The EEOC recommends mediation as a low-cost, confidential, less adversarial alternative to litigation. A neutral mediator helps both parties negotiate an agreement without having to hire lawyers or enter a courtroom.

While discrimination lawsuits make good drama for spectators, they’re costly and grueling for participants. As a high school junior with multiple academic and extracurricular demands, “I just wanted to be done with it and get a solution. I didn’t want it hanging over me,” Grace told me. Plus, she was anxious about having to face her former employer in mediation; a formal court process would have been even more intimidating and nerve-racking.

In March, Grace and her parents joined an online video session in which the mediator heard statements from her and the pool management company and helped negotiate a settlement.

Grace went into mediation seeking compensation for the difference between her hourly wage and the boys’ for the hours she worked, as well as for the wages she would have earned for the rest of the summer if she had not quit in protest. She also wanted the management company to undergo bias training and apologize to her.

Because mediation is confidential, Grace was not allowed to share details from the negotiations or the result. However, she said via email that she considers the experience a win overall. “Filing my complaint with the EEOC was definitely worth it — not just because I am happy with the outcome, but because I learned a lot about myself.”

How I'm fighting sexism at my workplace

Throughout the process, “I had adults telling me that I shouldn’t complain —that my complaints might affect my college applications, that gender wage disparity is a part of life, and that I should just be happy to have a job,” she wrote in an email. “But I knew what my employer was doing was wrong, and I realized that unless I spoke up, nothing would change.”

But she said support from family, friends and readers of The Washington Post made her feel “validated and hopeful.” Also, “what was most encouraging was that even though I am a teenager, the EEOC took me seriously,” she said.

“Now I know there’s lots I can do if this happens again,” she said. “I realize I was stronger than I thought.”

That alone would make for a triumphant ending, but there is a satisfying epilogue to the story.

At her new summer job as a swim coach, Grace and a male co-worker recently discovered that she was being paid four times what he was. Even given her greater work experience, the pay disparity seemed excessive. Seeing his dismay, she told him, “You know, there’s things you can do.” He brought the matter to management’s attention, and his pay was doubled.

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