If you’re a female employee, chances are you may be getting paid less on your job than your male counterparts. That’s because, though progress has been made, the issue of equal pay in America is still on shaky ground. Women still earn less on average than men employed in similar positions, even with federal law in place to prevent it.

The Equal Pay Act: Equal Pay for Equal Work

The current federal legislation addressing this issue is called the Equal Pay Act. Enacted just after World War II, the EPA came a solution to a problem that surfaced as more and more women entered into the workforce. At the time, most women were relegated to secretarial jobs or support positions, such as typists and clerical workers.

Women were making much less than men in terms of income and the push for a new law to level pay amounts resulted in the passage of EPA in 1963. The law requires that women be paid equal pay for equal work, and its aim is to bring workplaces across the nation closer to wage parity.

In other words, women must be paid the same as a male counterpart filling the same or similar position. The position need not be identical, but must be similar in terms of responsibilities and features as that of a male. Most importantly, employers are not allowed to discriminate against women by paying them less in salary or wages than men.

The EPA and the National Wage Gap

The EPA has now been in place for nearly 30 years. Yet, the gap between men’s and women’s pay is still significant. Although it has improved since the time the law was enacted, a significant wage gap between men and women still persists.

Today women make up about 49 percent of the workforce. Yet, female pay is on average 78 cents on the dollar less than men. This represents a gender wage gap of roughly 22 percent. Researchers predict it will take 50 years to eliminated the wage gap and reach wage parity at this rate. In addition, women continue to be a minority in senior level positions at Fortune 500 companies across the nation.

The Mechanics of the Current Wage Gap

The numbers behind the current wage gap can be frustrating for female workers and may leave some wondering what causes lay at the heart of the issue. Researchers cite a number of factors that contribute to difference in pay between male and female workers of today’s working world.

One interesting factor is unconscious bias. Many of today’s corporations operate under an unspoken code which caters to male employees in terms of compensation as well as in other areas of employment such a hiring and promotion. Employers who fail to train managers, supervisors and other key decisions makes can sometimes fall prey to the unconscious biases in operations a traditional ‘boys’ club’ companies where men dominate leadership roles and executive positions.

Sometimes unconscious bias against arises when employers avoid situations surrounding female status, such as pregnancy, child care and caregiving. Women play central roles in each of these situations each of which could mean higher costs for an employer in terms of insurance coverage, leave or other benefits. In this case, the bias against women is associated with the way that female employees affect a company’s bottom line.

Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination

The unconscious and conscious biases that employers may harbor against women are forms of discrimination prohibited by federal law and in most cases state law a well.  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the leading legislation addressing employment discrimination prohibits discrimination on the basis of the sex of an employee in every area of employment, including compensation.

Title VII’s provisions are meant to protect both male and female workers from differences in treatment while at work. When a woman experiences any of the type of biases described above, an employer could be held liable in a court of law.

Ways to Ensure Equal Pay for Female Employees

Female employees must be aware of their right to equal pay for equal work as well as the right to work free of sex discrimination and harassment in hiring, promotions and compensation.

Thus, the best way to ensure equal pay is to stay aware of your rights and to contact a skilled employment law attorney if you think your right to equal pay has been violated in any way. An attorney can assist with gathering the most effective documents for uncovering the specifics of your complaint and can ensure that when you are ready to file charges with the EEOC, which governs the enforcement of Title VII and the EPA.

Also, if you think you are being unfairly compensated for your work, consider filing a complaint with your HR department. It is important that any such complaint is well documented and filed according to company guidelines. This may come in handy should you decide to pursue litigation later.

In fact, pursuing litigation is yet another excellent way to ensure equal pay. Most discrimination complaints against an employer for violations of federal law must start with an EEOC charge. However, employees alleging EPA violations may go directly to court. It is also important to note that an employee may allege both an EPA violation and a Title VII violation when she feels a wage or pay discrepancy exists based on her status as a female. For a Title VII violation, the initial charge must be filed with the EEOC first before proceeding to court.

Ensuring Equal Pay: It’s Up To You

Your pay is valuable and so are your rights as a female employee. It’s up to you to take the first step in the right direction to ensure that your pay is equal to male co-workers and that your rights are not being violated simply because you are a female worker. If you feel your rights have been violated, take some time to speak with a competent employment rights attorney who will stand up for your right to equal pay.