Ruth Harris made history when she joined the City law firm Ashurst in 1995. Not for winning a case or signing a deal but for being among the first female lawyers allowed to wear trousers in the UK. Feeling as though ‘the cusp of things [was] shifting’, Harris overcame the inertia surrounding female lawyers. Yet, more than two decades on, there remains a distinct gender gap, and additionally, a gender pay gap in the legal profession at the highest echelons of the industry.
Defined as “the difference between women’s and men’s average weekly full-time equivalent earnings, expressed as a percentage of men’s earnings,” the gender wage gap is something that has existed since our design. The gender wage gap must not be conflated with equal pay. Unequal pay is when women are paid less than men for doing the exact same work and has been a legal requirement since the Equal Pay Act was introduced in 1970. Despite this, pay discrimination remains rife, explains Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society. As the second largest market after the US, the British Legal System renders female attorneys largely unequally paid for their work while the Law remains one of the most male-dominated industries globally.
One must begin by considering the strides made by the British parliament in order to tackle this gap. 2020 marked 50 years since the Equality Pay Act received royal assent in the UK; employers were legally prohibited from paying women less than men for the same job. Nevertheless, despite unequal pay being outlawed, the gender wage gap massively persists. In an attempt to diminish this gap further, the Gender Pay Gap Information Regulations 2017 amendment to the The Equality Act 2010 legally compels all private and voluntary sector employers with 250 or more employees to report their gender pay gap figures by the end of the financial year. Employers must publish six calculations showing: the mean gender pay gap in hourly pay, median gender pay gap in hourly pay, mean bonus gender pay gap, median bonus gender pay gap, proportion of males and females receiving a bonus payment and proportion of males and females in each pay quartile. In the name of transparency, smaller firms are beginning to publish their data too, which theoretically should hold them more accountable.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government Equalities Office and the Equality and Human Rights Commission put out a joint statement in March 2020 confirming that the enforcement of the gender pay gap reporting would be suspended for the 2019-20 reporting year. Linklaters, a Magic Circle firm concluded that ‘pay gap reporting has shone a light on gender inequality in the workplace and without accurate statistics there will be no clear picture of where women stand as we emerge from the covid-19 crisis.’ Nevertheless, their 2017 figures reveal that men at the firm, on average, received about 58% more in bonus money and 23% more in hourly pay than women. The bonus and pay gaps of the other Magic Circle firms are roughly consistent - a finding which should spark more change than it currently does. A probable reasoning for this stands that due to the composition of workers, the gap will always remain. The firm states that they ‘have more men in the most senior roles and a higher proportion of women in secretarial and junior business team roles, which predominantly fall within our lowest pay quartile.’
In 2018, Clifford Chance reported an overall mean gender pay gap of 65.7% - a year-on-year closure of 3.9% on its previous result of 68.9% in 2017. Their report also exposed that their overall mean sexuality pay gap has closed by 8% to 27.5%, and its ethnicity pay gap sits at 51.6% for women. Equally, it is important to assess a firm’s values and goals with regards to wholly closing this gap in the future. Clifford Chance, in their 2018 Gender Pay Gap Report published that they aim to ‘refresh and re-brand [their] London Women’s Network with a revised strategy.’ By consequence, their new gender parity group, Accelerate>>>, launched in November 2018.
Elsewhere, Freshfields posted an overall mean gender pay gap of 57.2% — down slightly from 57.6% in 2018. The gender pay gap among associates, however, is much lower, at 3.2%. The firm also revealed black, Asian and minority ethnic women BAME employees are paid, on average, 19.9% less an hour than their white colleagues. Factoring in partners, this gap jumps to 66.4% which suggests that as positioning in the firm becomes more prestigious, the gap widens which is massively concerning.
An associate at the City firm Freshfields stated that she was thinking of starting a family, a majorly rare endeavour at her position. She quoted that “unless your partner is willing to not only shoulder the burden but sacrifice [their] career at the expense of yours, it seems you can’t do it.” Law firms are attempting to mitigate this issue by introducing shared parental leave, with Linklaters replacing its two-weeks paternity leave with 12-weeks fully-paid parental leave for anyone having a child in 2020.
Although statistics and programmes show that most pay gaps are moving in the right direction, it seems aggravating that the year-on-year changes have, and will be fairly small. These minor increments of 3.9% for instance, are predominantly a reflection of the make-up of the workforce – with higher numbers of women in business support roles and a larger proportion of men in the most senior positions within the firm. Yet, firms must accelerate their efforts in order to establish sustainable and entrenched long term change.
From my perspective, role models are key to supporting women on the route to partnership and senior positions in the firm. Finding more of yourself within the people you work for or with, according to Cheng Li Yow, a partner of Clifford Chance, fosters a more motivational and productive work atmosphere. Thus, gender diversity and equality, surely based on meritocracy, must be the fundamental goal of Law firms.
Sources I used:
1. Ft.com. 2021. Women still missing from top ranks of law firms. [online] Available at: <https://www.ft.com/content/aa517372-14fa-11ea-8d73-6303645ac406> [Accessed 30 March 2021].
2. The Independent. 2021. What is the gender pay gap and how is it different from equal pay?. [online] Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/women/gender-pay-gap-equal-pay-women-paid-less-motherhood-a8856121.html> [Accessed 6 April 2021].
3. Francis-Devine, B. and Ferguson, D., 2021. 50 years of the Equal Pay Act. [online] House of Commons Library. Available at: <https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/50-years-of-the-equal-pay-act/> [Accessed 5 April 2021].
4. Equalityhumanrights.com. 2021. Gender pay gap reporting | Equality and Human Rights Commission. [online] Available at: <https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/advice-and-guidance/gender-pay-gap-reporting> [Accessed 16 April 2021].
5. Linklaters.com. 2021. Diversity Pay Gap | Diversity & Inclusion | Linklaters. [online] Available at: <https://www.linklaters.com/en/about-us/responsibility/diversity-pay-gap> [Accessed 15 April 2021].
6. Linklaters.com. 2021. Gender pay gap and furloughed employees| EmploymentLinks | Linklaters. [online] Available at: <https://www.linklaters.com/en/insights/blogs/employmentlinks/2020/december/gender-pay-gap-and-furloughed-employees> [Accessed 14 April 2021].
7. Ft.com. 2021. Women still missing from top ranks of law firms. [online] Available at: <https://www.ft.com/content/aa517372-14fa-11ea-8d73-6303645ac406> [Accessed 30 March 2021].
8. Globallegalpost.com. 2021. Latest gender pay gap figures reveal extent of diversity challenge facing top UK law firms. [online] Available at: <https://www.globallegalpost.com/big-stories/latest-gender-pay-gap-figures-reveal-extent-of-diversity-challenge-facing-top-uk-law-firms-15197452/> [Accessed 6 April 2021].