This week the Law Society of Scotland has published a study showing that male solicitors are being paid up to 42% more than female solicitors in the later stage of their careers. This is in comparison to the UK overall pay gap which is 19.1%.
How can this shocking statistic be the case 45 years after the publication of the Equal Pay Act in 1970 and why in particular does law have such an inequality?
As an employment solicitor I have worked within the private, public and third sectors. During this time I have worked with firms who actively address and work towards levelling the gender pay gap. However, I have also witnessed practices which lead me to believe there are peculiarities to law which make it challenging for women to advance to the senior roles.
There are many reasons why women are historically paid less than men.
Traditionally, a major factor is the continuing stereotypes around gender roles and their value in society. The majority of those working in the health and social care (a traditionally low paid sector) are women and the majority working in science, technology and engineering are men (a higher-paying sector). The legal profession has come a long way in enabling equality of access to the profession. The Law Society of Scotland shows that there are now equivalent numbers of male and female members and therefore the issue is one of progression in the later stages of their career.
Another key reason for the gender pay inequality is that women are far more likely to work part-time than full-time due to childcare responsibilities. Recent changes to parental leave in the UK mean that men and women can now split parental leave which is a positive step forward but early figures suggest that this has not been taken up by many men. This may well be because in many relationships the man earns more and therefore it does not make financial sense for the greater earning partner to remain off work. This ironically perpetuates the gender inequality and I would hazard a guess that the legal sector is not excluded from this generality. A cultural shift is needed for employers to challenge assumptions that men should be those at work and in the most senior positions. Effecting lasting changes to stereotypes and social norms requires both a strong approach by Government to lead by example as well as a concerted effort by employers and employees to openly discuss flexibility in parental arrangements.
In many sectors flexible and part-time working are now quite common. However, law is one of the more traditional industries and while many firms now offer flexible working arrangements, there is still stigma attached in certain places to not being ‘present’ at the office for all of the working hours of the day. Flexible working has limitations in certain workplaces, but it is only one answer to changing how work is organised. A holistic approach is needed in order to shift outdated notions of work. Firms could do more to encourage a change in attitude through making employees aware of the options and rolling out flexible working policies. I believe this will become of vital importance in order to encourage women to make the challenging leap from associate to partner and progress within the organisation.
What can be done?
Firms could promote a more transparent relationship with pay. Being clear about pay structures encourages open and honest discussions about the value of roles within an organisation. This April the government have finally agreed to require companies with more than 250 employees (or 7,000 firms which in total employ 10 million men and women) to publish differences in pay between men and women. We will have to wait and see if this effects a more general move towards transparency.
Thankfully flexibility and part-time working arrangements are far more common in law than they once were but some more traditional firms could still benefit from acknowledging the power in retaining and supporting talent through this model.
My career has been helped infinitely by finding female mentors. Women traditionally excel in the forum of communication and collaboration, finding someone whose footsteps you can mirror is often incredibly valuable and is a rewarding exercise for both parties. Joining or creating a women’s networking group is fantastic way to share experience and approaches.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, women need to take responsibility for proving how valuable they are to their firm and believing that they would excel in the partnership arena. Men are far more likely to have faith in their abilities, to ask for promotions and pay rises whereas women tend not to. Providing a business case to the organisation showing how value could be added through a more flexible approach is the start we need to begin this vital conversation.