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The ‘motherhood penalty’ means women are leaving law

The implementation of female-centric initiatives and “generous” parental leave policies are needed in order to not only create a more equitable legal environment but also to combat the “motherhood penalty” facing female legal professionals. 

user iconLauren Croft 25 October 2022 Big Law
The ‘motherhood penalty’ means women are leaving law
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As the progress for female leadership across the country goes backwards, despite more women entering the profession than ever, women’s salaries have now been revealed to drop off significantly after having children.  

According to the October 2022 Treasury round-up paper, Children and the Gender Earnings Gap, women’s earnings are reduced by an average of 55 per cent in the first five years of parenthood.

The gap in earnings — termed the “motherhood penalty” — remains significant a decade into motherhood, and it will be discussed in detail at the inaugural Women in Law Forum 2022 in November, along with strategies employers could implement to eradicate it.


Despite there being a slight recovery in later years, women experience a larger penalty from entering parenthood than men — who don’t experience one at all. Moreover, the paper revealed that mothers tend to feel less satisfied with their employment opportunities after having children, too.  

President of the Women Lawyers Association of New South Wales and barrister Renée Bianchi said this could often mean women leave the profession altogether.

“This is an important issue as it causes women to leave the profession, or have them question whether this is a career for them,” she told Lawyers Weekly.

“That, much like sexual harassment, discrimination, [and] pay inequity, means that the best and brightest do not want to enter the legal profession. We are missing out on talent.”

According to the 2021 Annual Profile of Solicitors in NSW report, female solicitors outnumbered their male counterparts for the fifth consecutive year — yet the gender pay gap still exists across the profession, with many indications that women are leaving the profession earlier than men, who make up the majority of leaders within the profession.

To combat this, firms have been urged to place a higher importance on advancing younger female lawyers, as well as ensuring gender diversity at all levels.

For King & Wood Mallesons, this has meant ensuring working mothers stay at the firm — in addition to making sure they have initiatives in place to attract female solicitors, said executive director of people and development at the firm Kathryn Bellion.

“It’s essential we maximise our talent pool to work within the firm, and not being able to attract and retain half our population immediately sees us coming from behind. We also need to make King & Wood Mallesons the place for the best and the brightest legal and other professionals to be,” she said.

“In terms of the motherhood penalty, that means not presenting barriers to working mothers that make it easier to go than to stay and give of their best to us as often as they can.”

Whilst the legal profession has made “considerable progress” towards equity in recent years — there is certainly more work to be done, according to Lander & Rogers chief executive partner Genevieve Collins. Of the firm’s 85 partners, 47 per cent are female — the highest percentage of any Australian BigLaw firm.

“Over the last few years, flexible working, adoption of smarter technologies and reprioritising of purpose have demonstrated that it is absolutely possible to balance family priorities with work commitments,” Ms Collins said.

“Now is the time to reflect on these changes, the direction we want to take as a profession and how we can capitalise on these opportunities to create a more equitable environment for all of us.”

Lander & Rogers has implemented a number of initiatives to drive change, including fully flexible working practices with no mandated in-office days, technologies that facilitate hybrid working, equal numbers of women on leadership and promotion programs and a high representation of women in senior leadership roles, with four of the firm’s eight practice groups being led by women.

The firm also gives staff access to job share arrangements for those working less than full time and has removed “pay secrecy” clauses from their employment contracts.

“[We have] a generous gender-neutral parental leave policy, with 26 weeks paid parental leave and superannuation paid for additional unpaid leave. We have no minimum service requirements for access,” Ms Collins added.

“Paid leave can be taken at any time up to 18 months after birth or adoption to encourage easy access typically by fathers. This change is a good example of being thoughtful in addressing unintended consequences that fathers are typically more likely to access paid leave after six months of birth or adoption.”

Similarly, and in addition to a number of other firms, KWM has increased its paid parental leave to 26 weeks, regardless of gender, in what is becoming a more common offering in the profession.

“Continuing to normalise equal opportunity parenting starts with parental leave. We feel proud at King & Wood Mallesons to have increased this to 26 weeks paid parental leave regardless of gender, continuing to pay superannuation for the first 12 months of parental leave and normalising flexible working for pretty much all roles, including at our most senior levels,” Ms Bellion said.

“We keep evolving what we do and also working through where systemically and culturally we need to keep improving, such as age and stage offerings for mothers (and parents) as children go through their first years and then become adolescents and reach critical years of schooling. Flexibility needs to be a mainstay and also something all parents can take on. Our focus is on creating a system that is inclusive for all families.”

Furthermore, firms should be offering equal access to parental leave across the board for all roles — something Ms Bellion is confident will be the case moving forward.

“[In addition, firms should] remove assumptions about the ability of a working parent — still more often a working mother — to contribute to the workplace by not questioning their desire for great work, great opportunities and to be a great member of any team,” she added.

“We can all need flexibility from time to time, and why that is should least be questioned for someone who has others depending on them for their wellbeing (be they children or others needing care (family, partners, pets). Communication is one of the keys here, and not making assumptions.”

Ms Bianchi echoed a similar sentiment that paid parental leave for all genders is particularly valuable.

“The legal profession is getting better, but there is still much that can be done. Things like looking at the criteria for hiring, and particularly the criteria for promotion. How is a period, or periods of parental leave, taken into account when considering whether someone should be hired or promoted. Encouraging all employees to take parental/carer’s leave (ensuring no difference between primary and secondary carer), not just women, and having a generous paid parental leave scheme with superannuation,” she emphasised.

“COVID has shown us that everyone benefits from flexible work options, so ensuring that this can continue and again that this is not seen to be for women only, and that if someone works flexibly that they are no less committed to their job. Transparency around remuneration so that one knows what their peers are earning.”

In terms of what needs to change within the profession, Ms Collins argued that organisations need to be more vigilant — and truly commit to gender equality initiatives.

“Gender equality has always been a business and a fairness issue — essential for workplaces to thrive and has always been enabling equal share of opportunities. As a profession, we have a responsibility to continue to challenge ourselves and ask how we can promote a culture of inclusion where everyone is supported to be at their best,” she said.

“Taking a holistic approach to gender equality starts with an honest assessment of organisational culture. To achieve meaningful and sustainable progress, it is necessary to be thoughtful about all decision-making, and support progress with targeted policies, initiatives and education. This requires vigilance about participation, unintended consequences and unhelpful backlash, ensuring equal access to all opportunities irrespective of gender.”

Firm culture can also play a massive part in tackling issues within the gender equality space — which remains one of the key issues for the profession.

“In combating the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’, it’s critical to take a holistic approach, beginning with an organisation’s culture. Targeted policies, initiatives, and education are, of course, essential, but the starting point must be in creating and maintaining a fundamental culture of inclusiveness for all people. This requires thoughtfulness in all firm decision-making to ensure intended outcomes and to avoid unintended consequences or perhaps worse, unhelpful backlash,” Ms Collins added.

“We know that balance in gender representation at all levels leads to better outcomes for our clients, a stronger, sustainable culture, enhanced engagement within our teams and more equitable outcomes for our profession.”

To hear more about how to mitigate the motherhood penalty and ensure that gender, pregnancy and family planning do not impede a woman’s career progression and prospects for promotion, come along to the inaugural Women in Law Forum 2022.

A panel of speakers will unpack how workplaces and leaders could navigate wellness issues unique to women in the workplace and close the gender pay gap with progressive leave policies and support systems.

The Women in Law Forum will be held on 24 November 2022 at Grand Hyatt Melbourne.

Click here to book your tickets and make sure you don’t miss out!

For more information, including agenda and speakers, click here.