Mind the gap: closing the gender pay gap
Dana Denis-Smith considers how to address gender pay inequality
The legal sector is continuing to grapple with an ongoing and significant gender pay gap, with little evidence to suggest pay equality will be achieved any time soon.
New research, from the Next 100 Years and pay analytics company Gapsquare, found 84 per cent of women in law believe they won’t see true gender pay equality in their working lives, while 29 per cent said it won’t happen in the next 100 years. The report also analysed gender pay gap reports filed with the UK government. The data backed up the sentiment of the women surveyed in estimating that, if we do nothing, the legal services sector will not see pay equity between women and men for another 86 years.
Gapsquare’s analysis of the hourly pay rates, provided by firms under the statutory gender pay reporting guidelines for 2022, show a gender pay gap of 25.4 per cent – a figure which remains largely unchanged since 2017, when mandatory reporting first came into effect for businesses with 250 staff. If this trend continues, it certainly seems doubtful the gender pay gap in the legal profession will ever close.
Bonus payments are also a source of inequality at many employers. More than a quarter of respondents disagreed that the distribution of bonuses between men and women in their organisation was fair.
The research echoes the findings of the Law Society, which showed, on average, women in the largest firms earn a fifth less than men, with the gender pay gap 50 per cent wider than the average UK business.
These findings are alarming, not only for the immediate and future careers of women, but also for the future of the sector itself, which will need to be increasingly inclusive if it is to thrive.
Clearly there is a need for action to redress pay inequality – and while some firms are seeking to tackle the problem, there is much work to do. The report found a lack of faith amongst respondents in firm leaders’ willingness to resolve this issue, with 62 per cent saying that fixing the gender pay gap is not a priority for senior management in their firm.
Next generation concerns
Failure on progress towards pay equality does not bode well for employee retention, especially given the pessimism of the younger generation. All junior female lawyers surveyed (at associate, trainee or pupil level) agreed the gender pay gap was a concern for them, but trainees and pupils were the only job role surveyed in which none believed that true pay equality would be achieved within their career.
We need to ensure that women are confident they are being paid at the right level, especially as they climb the ladder. With inclusivity playing an increasingly large role in employee retention, negativity over pay discrepancies and subsequent disillusionment could impact future employee turnover in the sector.
Given the law has one of the largest gender pay gaps, what can we do to stop the profession falling behind? How do we ensure women lawyers are paid what they are worth – and not deter talented, aspiring lawyers from entering a sector that appears not to be prioritising equality?
There are a number of areas where legal organisations can take action. Firstly, they need to improve the transparency of pay grades and career paths. One of the most significant barriers to closing the gender pay gap is the profession’s reluctance to let employees openly discuss reward matters.
To overcome this, we need to see employers embrace transparency. That means publishing grading structures and allowing employees to talk about pay between themselves. For self-employed barristers, it means being more open to discussing and benchmarking fees.
Data is all important – as Dr Zara Nanu, CEO of Gapsquare, points out: “in many ways the legal sector is truly innovative, leveraging new technologies to work more efficiently and grappling with pressing issues head on”. We need to look at how can we use technology and data, she says, “to help focus minds and make gender pay parity a key management issue.”
Securing the commitment of senior management is crucial. Change comes from the top, so senior leaders must demonstrate a firm commitment to addressing the problem. This means changing attitudes – management must recognise that the pay gap exists and it is incumbent on them to address it.
This commitment must be real. Leaders must implement initiatives that are genuinely designed to close the gap, not just token actions carried out to generate positive headlines. This includes looking to other sectors, working with experts and collaborating as a profession, to identify which initiatives make the most impact, in real terms.
The legal world has a tendency to focus on how much experience an individual has, rather than what they can do. We need to shift to looking at performance, rather than experience, when it comes to determining pay and promotion. People’s abilities must be judged on their knowledge and skills, not just on how many years they have under their belts.
Focusing on service time disproportionately impacts women, who often take maternity leave and then return to work part-time, to allow them more time to raise their families. Instead, decisions on pay and promotion must be informed by a person’s ability to do the job.
The profession has also to overcome outmoded attitudes to different areas of the law. Comments from respondents to our survey suggested that men dominate the highest-paying practice areas, further exacerbating the gender pay gap. But it is time to eschew the attitudes that ‘family law is women’s work,’ for example, or that complex fraud cases can only be handled by men.
Finally, we need to tackle the imbalance in the distribution of work. This is set to become even more of an issue, as hybrid working brings with it the danger that those spending more time working remotely are more likely to lose out – while the juiciest assignments go to those putting in time at the office. Inevitably this will have more impact on women with caring responsibilities.
Of course, even if all these recommendations are followed, the gender pay gap will not disappear overnight. It will require several years for the inequalities currently baked into the system to dissipate.
It will take hard work – but the excuses need to end, with senior leaders acknowledging the existence of the problem and making those first steps towards resolving the pay gap so we can begin turning the tide against the worrying lack of progress.
Dana Denis-Smith is founder of the Next 100 Years and CEO of Obelisk Support. For further information you can read the report in full here: Closing the gender pay gap in the legal profession