Updated: Jan 24
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', gender pay gap has always been an issue. 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, Britain's female attorneys are largely unequally paid for their work while the legal sector 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, gender pay gap massively persists. In an attempt to diminish this gap further, the Gender Pay Gap Information Regulations 2017 amendment to 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 each financial year. Employers must publish six calculations showing: the mean gender pay gap in hourly pay, the median gender pay gap in hourly pay, mean bonus gender pay gap, median bonus gender pay gap, the 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 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 gender pay gap has closed by 8% to 27.5%, and that their 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 (BAME) women 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 and this 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-week 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 at 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.
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