Employment attorney Charlotte Sweeney has been one of the key drafters of this session’s Equal Pay for Equal Work Act in Colorado, and she’s had a lot to bring to the table.
For two and a half decades, she’s been taking on employment discrimination cases filled with twists you couldn’t make up for a movie: a worker in the Department of Labor who couldn’t get an accommodation for her vision impairment and was then fired while her lawsuit was pending; a woman who worked as the chief hearing officer for Denver’s Career Service Board for several years before she discovered by chance she made less than her male counterpart; and Sweeney represented six out of a group of eight women law professors at the University of Denver who worked at the school for decades before it came to light they were systematically paid less than male colleagues.
Sweeney said her desire to use her career to give back has been shaped by the work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, for which she has served on the board. The organization was formed after Shepard’s 1998 murder in Laramie, Wyoming, for being gay, and does advocacy work for LGBTQ people. It played a key role in passing the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
“The Shepards are a model of giving back, and of turning tragedy into an absolute victory of love,” she said.
Sweeney said she’s always done sex discrimination cases but started to focus on them heavily 10 or 12 years ago when she noticed a lot of women coming to her saying the same thing: They just had a sense they were getting paid less than colleagues, even though they were doing the same — if not more — work.
Sweeney said when she looks into women’s cases and figures out they are in fact receiving less pay for equal or more work, she can “see [their] sense of relief that somebody was hearing the story for the first time and knowing there was a problem, instead of making it feel like it was their problem.” She added she believes women have a natural tendency to first assume any pay discrepancy is because of something they’re doing wrong, whether not advocating for themselves or working hard enough.
“It really motivated me to want to help turn that inward camera out,” Sweeney said. “It’s not you. There’s something going on in the workplace.”