For much of history women have faced severe discrimination in male-dominated workplaces, when they were allowed to work at all. Today women in most industrial nations enjoy equal rights under law, if not also in practice. The United States has several laws on the books that make it illegal for employers to discriminate against women in hiring, compensation, worker testing, fringe benefits, work duties and access to company facilities.
Women's equal rights in the workplace has been at the forefront of equal rights advocacy and the feminist movement since the 19th century. The issue took on additional importance once a new federal law gave women the right to vote in the early 20th century. Gender discrimination was often cited alongside racism and religious discrimination during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Today analysts compare the average salaries of women to those of men in an ongoing attempt to identify and combat inequalities in the workplace that legislation can't prevent.
Two major laws deal with the rights of women in the workplace. The first is the Equal Pay Act of 1963. This law, which is also part of the U.S. Code section 206(d), states that men and women who perform substantially similar work must receive equal pay. It also enforces federal minimum wage laws for all workers regardless of gender.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also affects women's rights. Its Title VII states that employers may not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, religion or national origin. Though celebrated for its impact on African-American workers, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is also significant in the history of women's rights.
Federal legislation that grants women equal status in the workplace has had a significant impact on the constitution of the American workforce. According to Equal Rights Advocates, as of 2011 women make up 48 percent of the overall workforce. Of those women, 70 percent work as a matter of economic need. In total, 18 percent of U.S. households are headed by women who are the primary sources of income for their families. These numbers point to the fact that free access to work is a necessity for many women, and that equal rights legislation allows many women to have substantial careers.
The Civil Rights Act of 1991 is another important law in terms of women's rights. It specifies that women who face job-related discrimination are entitled to monetary damages. Women who observe discriminatory behavior can consult with lawyers, including civil rights advocates who offer free advice and may even take a case and charge small or no legal fees.
However, equal rights for women in the workplace does not eliminate the reality of merit-based pay and variable pay scales for workers based on seniority and job effectiveness. Women are simply entitled to the same treatment within a business's pay system as their male counterparts.