Last May, the Durham-Chapel Hill metro area was ranked as the country’s top locale for gender equality in the workforce, according to a census analysis by U.S. News & World Report.

Tell that to B Natalie Demers, an employee at UNC Hospitals who is suing it on grounds of wage discrimination.

Demers has been a neurodiagnostic technician at UNC Hospitals since 2006. According to court documents, when a database of hospital employee salaries was published in June 2010, she was surprised to discover that she made about 16 percent less than a male coworker with the same job and, to her knowledge, less experience.

Demers and representatives from UNC Hospital declined to speak to the Indy.

The lawsuit alleges that Demers first approached her Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) officer about the issue last year. To Demers’ knowledge, according to court documents, the officer never investigated her claims.

When Demers complained to her immediate supervisor, Kyle Kalkowski, she and Kalkowski discovered that a page of her résumé listing 10 years’ of work experience was missing from her file, which had lowered her starting salary.

To verify her work experience, UNC Hospitals requested signed statements from Demers’ former employers, conducted two background checks and hired a private investigator. Emails from Demers’ former employees confirmed her work experience to UNC Hospitals, court documents say.

In January 2011, the hospital denied Demers a pay adjustment. Demers then hired Caitlyn Thomson, a Durham-based attorney who has represented clients in employment discrimination cases for 13 years.

According to Thomson, UNC Hospitals claims the wage difference between Demers and her co-worker is justified by their respective work experiences. Demers and Thomson have asked UNC Hospitals to release that information for review.

The lawsuit will be heard in federal court, where defense attorneys have filed motions to remove the UNC Board of Governors from the list of defendants because it does not control personnel issues at UNC Hospitals. A trial date hasn’t been set. Demers is suing for back pay, attorney’s fees and a raise in wages equal to the level of her male co-worker.

The 1963 Equal Pay Act guarantees equal pay for equal work for men and women, but despite the growing numbers of women in the workforce, the gender wage gap has only slightly narrowed in the past 15 years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 women made about 77 cents per dollar earned by men.

“Gender discrimination exists today, but it is not as overt as it used to be,” said Arne Kalleberg, a Kenan Distinguished Professor of Sociology at UNC whose research focuses on labor issues. Employers may be unaware of subtle biases that could lead them to give female employees fewer job responsibilities or promotions.

Many factors contribute to the gender wage gap, Kalleberg said. Women tend to cluster in lower-paying jobs and be less assertive in bargaining, he said. “Women also tend to have less continuous experience than men because our nation’s system of child care is so bad,” he said, forcing some women to leave the workforce.

Advocates for gender wage equality have recently experienced several setbacks. In 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Paycheck Fairness Act, intended to expand the scope of the Equal Pay Act, but the Senate filibustered the bill last year. In a July 2010 USA Today article, Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, was quoted as saying the pay equity bill “won’t empower women who face pay discrimination, but it will empower trial lawyers whose junk lawsuits will clog up the courts and make it hard for businesses to grow and hire.”

It is difficult to tackle the underlying causes of wage disparities, and it can also be challenging to resolve complaints like Demers’, said former Massachusetts Lieutenant Gov. Evelyn F. Murphy, author of Getting Even: Why Women Don’t Get Paid Like Men and What To Do About It.

“For an individual to sue an employer, the financial imbalance is huge,” Murphy said, because lawsuits can be expensive and protracted, and internal EEO offices can be biased. “It’s very hard to get internal sympathy. The one exception is when the grievance procedure does not go up the corporate chain, but it goes outside,” Murphy said.

Thomson agrees. “People believe the purpose of these internal Equal Employment Opportunity offices is to help them with complaints, but in my experience it’s just about risk management. Their job is to do their best to make sure the employer doesn’t end up getting sued.”

Facing these challenges, some women don’t speak up about their suspicions of discrimination. “Most women see the reality and know that retaliation is real, that they can lose their jobs,” said Murphy. She is also president of The WAGE Project, which conducts workshops nationwide that teach women wage negotiation skills. “There’s no real protection for them once they get into this dispute with their employer.”

Smith is an intern at the Indy.