Closing The Gap

Here's what Oprah did when she found out her male co-worker was making more money than her

Oprah Winfrey accepts the 2018 Cecil B. DeMille Award speaks onstage during the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 7, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California.

Amid the #MeToo movement, a heightened number of women running for public office, and a recent push forward for the Equal Rights Amendment, gender equality has risen to the forefront of national conversation.

On Wednesday, Illinois ratified the Equal Rights Amendment — the 37th state to do so since it was passed by Congress in 1972. The amendment aims to end gender discrimination and reads: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

One of Illinois' most famous stars, Oprah Winfrey, remembers an era not too long ago that looked much different than today.

Before hosting her own program, "The Oprah Winfrey Show," in Chicago from 1986 to 2011, Winfrey was struggling to launch her career at a local television station in Baltimore, Maryland. There, in the late 1970s, she found out that her co-host Richard Sher was earning more than she was.

"Working in Baltimore, I'd gone to my boss and said that the guy who was working with me, my co-host on the 'People Are Talking,' show, was making more money than I," Winfrey says in a 2014 interview at Stanford University. "We were co-hosts."

Although intimidated by the idea of approaching her boss to ask about money, Winfrey decided, "I'm going to go, and I'm going to stand up for myself," she remembers. "I said, 'Richard's making more money than I am and I don't think that's fair because we're doing the same job, we sit on the same show.'"

Her boss didn't see it that way. "My general manager said, 'Why should you make as much money as he?" Winfrey recalls. "He has children. Do you have children?" the boss asked.

"I said 'no,'" Winfrey remembers. "He has to pay for college educations. He owns his own home, do you own your home?"

The boss continued to point out expenses that Winfrey's co-host was responsible for, while she, in her late 20s, didn't yet have. Finally, the general manager asked again, "So tell me, why do you need the same amount of money?" (Her boss was exactly wrong about how to justify a raise — listing your expenses won't encourage an employer to pay you more. Instead, it's about highlighting your contributions and achievements.)

The exchange was enough for Winfrey to realize she wouldn't be taken seriously by the leadership at that organization. "I said 'Thank you for your time,' and I left," Winfrey explains at Stanford. "I knew that in that moment it was time for me to go."

She began to strategize the next moves in her career and followed her instincts to move to Chicago in 1984 to host "A.M. Chicago."

"The reason why I left my boss's office when I was asking for a raise — I knew he didn't hear nor see me, and that I was not going to get the validation that I needed," Winfrey says. "I decided not to file a suit against it because I knew at the time that I would lose, that no good would come of it."

But years later, while hosting her own show in Chicago, Winfrey got the chance to take action against pay inequality.

"I was making a lot of money, and my producers were still getting the same salary," Winfrey tells Time. "I went to my boss at the time and I said, 'Everybody needs a raise.'"

Again, the boss asked why the producers needed money. "They're only girls. They're a bunch of girls. What do they need more money for?" he said, according to Winfrey.

Now in power, Winfrey stood firm and told her boss she wouldn't host another show until the producers' pay increased. It worked.

"I think there are a lot of us of my generation who swallowed a lot," Winfrey explains to Time. "I always knew that there would come a time when I would be in a position where I wouldn't have to swallow it."

While gender equality today has made great strides, women in the workforce are still underrepresented in leadership roles. For example, there are only 24 women helming Fortune 500 companies as CEOs. And in the aggregate, they are paid less than men. Women working full time in the U.S. in 2016 earned $0.80 for every dollar earned by a man, according to the Institute for Women's Policy and Research (IWPR) and the American University of American Women.

For Winfrey, now worth $2.9 billion according to Forbes, her success is a message: "In the late '90s I had 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' and I ran into that guy," she says of her old boss from Baltimore. "[It was] one of the sweetest moments I ever had."

Don't miss: Ellen DeGeneres grew up poor but says, 'You shouldn't live your life in fear of money'

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This billionaire started with nothing, but she made it anyway
This billionaire started with nothing, but she made it anyway

This story has been updated to correct the date the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congress.