White men held the bulk of leadership roles and the paint covering “Colored” signs on bathroom doors was still fresh at the Defense General Supply Center, now Defense Logistics Agency Aviation, when Lillie Mae Brown became a frontwoman for equality. In 1974 she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Office alleging gender-based discrimination, giving six fellow employees the courage to say they, too, faced injustice due to gender or race.
Brown’s determined fight against discrimination resulted in a class-action lawsuit that brought changes in hiring, training, awards and promotion practices throughout DLA. Her lasting legacy and her work as a systems analyst developing standard bar-code technology for the Department of Defense will be highlighted July 26 when she is posthumously inducted into the DLA Hall of Fame at the McNamara Headquarters Complex.
Lillian Brown, Lillie Mae’s daughter, was in elementary school when her mother started recording details of her experience as a woman in the workplace. Brown believed she’d lost out on promotions unfairly and wanted the facts to stay clear in her mind.
“She was always trying to remember everything, coming home every day and writing down various things that happened so she had a record,” Lillian said, adding that her mother originally suspected she was treated poorly because she was a woman, not because of the color of her skin. “But there was also a race element to it at some point.”
Brown documented details for years before she drew the strength to file a complaint that instantly thrust her into an unwanted limelight and made her unpopular among her peers. Two other women and five black men soon emerged with their own testimonies of discrimination. And in August 1975, the judge in the case determined there was enough evidence to warrant a class-action lawsuit.
“Mom was happy about that because she knew it would make it easier to enact some broad-based changes,” Lillian said.
The lawsuit was settled in favor of Brown and her colleagues Sept. 19, 1977. By then, Lillian was in college and relieved that her mother’s tenacious stand for equality had finally been rewarded. The terms of the settlement brought DGSC into full compliance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972. The supply center was required to “make every reasonable effort” to increase the number of women and black men in middle- and upper-grade positions, including supervisory positions.
“The consent decree allowed the center to do many things that ordinarily wouldn’t have been allowed,” said Bob Irving, former equal employment manager at the center.
At least 25 percent of all vacancies at the GS-9 journeyman level had to be established as trainee positions with entry level being GS-5. Black and female employees took proportions of those positions at a rate at least equal to their representation within the DGSC workforce, according to Brown’s Hall of Fame citation.
The changes were significant. By 1986, minority representation in grades GS-11 to GS-15 rose from 5 percent to 20 percent and female representation went from 19 percent to 40 percent. There were still no minorities at the GS-15 level, but representation went from zero to 12 percent in GS-14 positions. Female representation at the GS-14 level also went from zero to 24 percent and from 17 percent to 25 percent for GS-15.
Progress continues to be made toward securing equal rights, especially for women and black men at DLA Aviation, former DLA Aviation EEO Director Harold McManus wrote in Brown’s nomination packet.
“Many sit where they are today because of Ms. Brown’s strength, courage and resolve to end discrimination in the workplace. Currently, women represent 51 percent of the DLA Aviation workforce with 21 percent being African-American. African-American males make up 11.23 percent of the workforce,” he said.
Brown also made significant accomplishments in her technical field. She developed standard bar-code technology for DoD that was used to improve receipt processing and stock-location accuracy in depot receiving and storage operations. Before retiring in October 1994 as a GS-13 with 27 years of service, Brown also helped create a technology laboratory that tested new bar-code labels and radio-frequency ID tags.
She died in 2006 in Richmond, Virginia. Lillian said her mom was a tough woman with rock-solid faith who believed all people have a purpose and deserve to be treated fairly.
“She didn’t do anything just for the recognition, but I believe she would have been happy about being inducted into the DLA Hall of Fame,” Lillian said. “She believed in standing up for one another, for doing the right thing.”