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The recent local case in which a high-level professional woman accused her employer of salary discrimination raised the thorny issue of equal pay for equal work at the upper echelons of the work place.

At this point, that case has not been settled, but what's interesting is that many people don't realize that once a woman reaches the top she still has to struggle to get paid the same as her male counterpart.

Still, many people find it difficult to conjure up sympathy for someone who's making a six-figure salary. She's making so much money how can she complain?, the thinking goes.

But the fact is that since the 1963 Equal Pay Act, no matter how much money a woman makes she is entitled to the same amount a man would be paid for the same job.

"Incredibly, people don't realize this is so common -- that there's this discrepancy at this (top career) level," said Rosemary Hays-Thomas, a professor of psychology at University of West Florida.

What many women have found in the fields of medicine and law is a kind of clustering into so-called female-oriented specialties, the experts who study this issue report.

As Hays-Thomas explained, if you look in the field of medicine, women are clustered into certain specialities such as pediatrics and family medicine. They are less likely to be found in surgery and neurosurgery, where the salaries are higher.

Of course, some of these career decisions are just that -- decisions. But you also have to wonder why there are salary discrepancies from one area of medicine to another.

Medicine is not the only problem area. The inequities are especially pervasive in universities where there are few women at the higher levels.

Lynda Ames, chairwoman of sociology and criminal justice at the State University at Plattsburgh, says gender discrimination is a common problem at universities.

In fact, there still are some men who think women don't belong in particular places, like teaching at a university, Ames said.

And there still exists subtle and not-so-subtle harassment, Ames added, including subordinates who refuse to deal with their female bosses and instead choose to go over their heads, so to speak. "And that's just the absolute sabotage," Ames said. "That woman won't be able to do anything in her career. She can't, if her subordinates are going over her head, she's in deep trouble."

Women at the upper echelons may be less likely to complain, according to Ames, because if they do complain they won't be considered team players and that will jeopardize their careers.

And if women feel they are targets of discrimination and decide to bring a lawsuit, they will more than likely find themselves with a case that is difficult to prove and expensive to pay for.

Buffalo has women in upper-level university positions with a college president and a university provost. But when Hays-Thomas was in college, there was one woman in the psychology department.

"That looked normal to me in those days," she said, adding that she received her college degree in 1965. Even now, in psychology, there are more women earning doctoral degrees than men, she added, but if you look at the typical department, you'll still find a lot more men, especially at the top.

One local college professor, who asked that her name not be used in this column, says that as a tenured full professor she probably earns more money than most women in the work force.

"My ability to reach this level certainly had much to do with the fact that I had the opportunity and resources to gain the credentials and find the free time, as a mother, to accomplish the work needed," she said.

"Nonetheless, it is irritating to know that even at this level, having worked as hard and achieved as much as our male colleagues, women are still earning so much less."

That women have to continue struggling, even when they reach the top, signals there is still much work to be done in the arena of equal rights. Equal pay for equal work should mean exactly that, no matter what level it involves.