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‘Active interventions needed’ to bridge gender pay gap in law

In conjunction with International Women’s Day, four legal association presidents discuss the plausibility of equal pay for women in Australia’s legal profession, the factors contributing to gender pay disparity, and the solutions. 

user iconJess Feyder 08 March 2023 Big Law
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“Gender pay parity in the legal profession is a goal that is achievable,” stated Justine Anderson, president of the Women Lawyers Association of NSW (WLANSW). “However, it will not be achieved simply by the affliction of time.”

Sophie Lefebvre, president of Victorian Women Lawyers, shared her views in the capacity of her role and not as an expression of the views of her employer. 

“Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency tells that we are crawling in the right direction, we aren’t moving fast enough, and progress has stalled,” Ms Lefebvre told Lawyers Weekly.


“More solicitors in Victoria identify as women (indeed, in 2022, 75 per cent of newly admitted lawyers were women), but attrition rates for women in law are higher than for men, practice areas dominated by women have lower rates of pay, and across the board, more men than women hold leadership positions in law firms and legal teams,” Ms Lefebvre outlined.

“The compounding effect of the gender pay gap cannot be underestimated,” she continued. “Women earning less don’t progress in careers as far as men, may feel compelled to take career breaks if they don’t earn enough to make childcare costs ’worth it’, will accumulate less super and ultimately face financial insecurity at all stages of life.”

What entrenches gender pay gaps in the legal profession?

“The reason why there is not gender pay parity is because of underlying structural and cultural factors that hold women, particularly those with caring responsibilities, back from achieving their full potential,” Ms Anderson said to Lawyers Weekly. 

Cassandra Banks, president of the Law Society of NSW, explained that the society engaged in consultations with large firms and agencies last year to identify the factors that have entrenched gender pay gaps.

“Pay gaps may be inadvertently imported or inherited during recruitment when candidates reveal their present salaries, which for women are frequently lower than men,” she explained.

“Pay secrecy clauses can mask unjustified discrepancies in pay between men and women.”

Australian Women Lawyers president Astrid Haban-Beer explained that there is both the imperative to prioritise gender pay equality where it doesn’t exist, as well as the need to reduce disparity in women’s superannuation balances. 

“The effect of pay inequality is not just earning a little less at various points in a career — it’s life-lasting,” she explained. 

Ms Lefebvre commented: “In practical terms, the gender pay gap can be closed but only with buy-in from employers. Whether there is appetite to change this within society generally and the legal profession more specifically remains to be seen.”  


“The legal profession requires urgent and considered action to be taken collectively on a national level,” stated Ms Anderson.

After carrying out substantial research in the area of equal pay, pay fairness, gender pay gap reporting and international best practices, WLANSW identified several measures that have shown to be effective:

  • No contractual terms requiring staff to maintain confidentiality about their remuneration;
  • Reporting of earnings data by band, including high and low pay;
  • Specificity in remuneration reviews as to what criteria are being measured; 
  • Earnings data is reported to the board on an annual basis;  
  • Earning data results audited on an annual basis to analyse results by both gender and ethnicity to identify unexpected patterns;
  • Job evaluation to determine pay rates;
  • Panels to review salary increase decisions made by line managers; and
  • Report on the ratio between the highest and lowest paid.
Ms Haban-Beer weighed in: “Realistically, gender pay equality won’t occur until there is greater pay transparency across the profession.”

“[Pay equality] could be near-term if businesses and government agencies report on salaries, barrister brief fees, and legal spend (with anonymised gender disaggregation) at all levels so a light can shine on those sticky areas where the gender pay disparity is greatest,” Ms Haban-Beer told Lawyers Weekly. 

“This is a systemic improvement, but it doesn’t need to be a slow process, like many system changes are.”

“It’s data that likely already exists for many businesses, and in fact, the government already reports. 

“The adage ‘you can manage what you can measure’ is critical here, and reporting and transparency go hand in hand to buttress each other.”

Ms Banks commented on several solutions worthy of exploration, noting the federal government’s recent announcement of legislation mandating reporting of gender pay gaps in businesses employing over 100 workers, starting in 2024.

“Greater transparency in firms around pay and promotions will help promote fairness in compensation for the same role,” Ms Banks noted.

Ms Banks also illuminated other improvements, like finding alternatives to billable hours as a means of measuring performance, as well as recognising the quality of work and contributions to the firm’s culture.

Ms Lefebvre said she is hopeful that the changes in legislation mandating the reporting of gender pay discrepancies will help.

“Pay secrecy (both enforcement through employment contracts and the politeness of ‘not talking about money’) has undoubtedly been a tool keeping the gender pay gap in place,” noted Ms Lefebvre.

“Knowledge is power, and so is data, but it must be used effectively.”

“Thinking we can sit back and look at the data, allow information sharing and that the ‘pay gap problem’ problem will fix itself is wishful thinking at best,” she continued. “Active interventions are needed from the legal profession. 

“It isn’t just about ensuring that as junior women progress, their pay keeps in line with their male counterparts; it is also a matter of assessing historic inequalities and redressing those issues for women more established in the profession.”

“My top tip to legal employers: Look at your metrics for pay progression and promotion and be honest about whether they are inherently biased,” she commented.

“If the sole determinant of promotion and progression is billable targets being met, are you creating an environment where that is possible?” Ms Lefebvre asked. “How much of the office housework and caregiving (the non-billable tasks) are you giving to your men, and how much falls to the shoulders of women?”