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Is inflation disproportionately impacting female lawyers?

With the cost of living continuing to rise and a potential recession on the horizon, inflation has been revealed to disproportionately impact women — and employers have been urged to take proactive steps in response to this.

user iconLauren Croft 29 March 2023 Big Law
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The World Economic Forum has recently reported that women fare worse in inflation than their male counterparts, earning less on average, being less likely to be able to work more hours due to caring responsibilities and more likely to be feeling insecure in their roles.

HR tech leader HiBob confirmed this in new research recently, as reported by Lawyers Weekly’s sister brand, HR Leader.

Women surveyed said they are feeling increasingly insecure about their jobs. The Australian Women Professionals in the Workplace report noted that 57 per cent cited the current economic downturn as a reason they’re worried about losing their job. 


Additionally, just 35 per cent of women believe that men and women are paid equally within their organisation, and more than a quarter (27 per cent) of women believe that men are being paid more than women in their organisation.

This is an issue that Workplace Gender Equality Agency director Mary Wooldridge emphasised in a recent LinkedIn post, where she said that the gender pay gap is a “measure of how we value the contribution of women and men to the workforce”.

“In 2021–22, the gender pay gap of 22.8 per cent saw women earn, on average, $26,600 less than men. This is even more keenly felt in times of high inflation and a rising cost of living, like what we’re seeing right now,” she wrote.

“Although we’re all feeling the pinch of increasing costs of food, rent and fuel, because women earn just 77¢ for every $1 a man earns, it means these inflation pressures have a disproportionate impact on women.”

Australian Women Lawyers president Astrid Haban-Beer agreed with this notion — and told Lawyers Weekly that it rang particularly true for female lawyers working in areas like legal aid.

“While these are pressures that affect everyone, inflation, interest rate rises, and cost-of-living pressures will disproportionately affect those who are already at a disadvantage, including women,” she said.  

“Women lawyers are included here, especially those whose practices are subject to lower brief fee ceilings — such as women barristers with a government practice, or those in legal aid criminal practice where fees for legal services are fixed. Those rates are ‘sticky’, meaning it is very hard, or impossible, to increase rates as per usual market conditions, leading to a potentially wider gender pay gap.”

And despite the legal profession being slightly more “privileged” in this space — the median Australian income is currently approximately $65,000 a year, while lawyers are on an average salary of over $100,000, according to Indeed — the legal industry has a “persistent gender pay gap problem”, according to Victorian Women Lawyers president Sophie Lefebvre, who added that race, geography, sexuality, and disability also have an impact on pay equity.

“Research shows that women face more negative impacts from inflation than men face. With the persistence of the gender pay gap in the legal profession, women lawyers have less financial cushion to absorb the impact of inflation, which is already starting to have an impact on the standard of living for many of us.

“Those already in a vicious cycle of pay inequity may be more negatively impacted by decisions of employers to ‘tighten the belt’ and hold back on pay rises or promotions.  Those who have taken career breaks for caring responsibilities may feel the need to extend them as childcare costs increase,” she told Lawyers Weekly.   

“In addition, office housework (non-billable tasks) often disproportionately falls to women (and research suggests more frequently women of colour) in the office already, with more and more offices reducing their administrative support resources, this may also result in more work for women lawyers, but if it is not work directly tied to billable targets this extra work may also limit opportunities for progress and promotion.”

This can mean that female legal professionals are more likely to face the “motherhood penalty” — with women’s salaries revealed to have significantly decreased after taking time off to have 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.

“Social and economic pressures play out in the microcosm of legal practice generally, where issues for working families such as childcare costs may make it less economically attractive for one or multiple parents to engage in full-time work, again potentially reducing the economic participation of women in the workforce overall,” Ms Haban-Beer quipped.

“Conversely, we see and hear of a lot of pressure faced by women lawyers who are the primary or sole income earners in their families whereby the demands of cost-of-living pressures may lead to working at a greater rate than is healthy or sustainable, leading to burnout, attrition and retention issues. The profession needs to support the needs of women lawyers by doing work to close the gender pay gap — through reporting and transparency around legal wages and brief fees.”

But despite female solicitors continuing to outnumber their male counterparts, 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.

This trend has continued into 2023, as Lawyers Weekly’s Legal Firm of Choice Survey recently showed that women and junior lawyers were among the most likely to leave their firms.

Ms Lefebvre opined that this merely confirms the fact that “the traditional male-dominated power structures have not adjusted in line with women joining the practice of law”.

The persistence of the ‘merit’ myth when it comes to remuneration will only make this worse, and acknowledging unequal treatment won’t fix the problems. Employers need to take proactive steps to not only ensure new employees are paid fairly, but that they are redressing historic pay inequity.

“Employers can look to undertake audits of gender pay gaps to implement changes and should look at how their flexible work arrangements are operating to ensure flexibility isn’t a double-edged sword resulting in women being sidelined from projects that can lead to promotion. In times of economic crisis, there will be the imperative to protect our commercial and business interests, but we shouldn’t lose sight of human impacts,” she explained.  

“Agreeing that the wellbeing of lawyers isn’t exclusively their personal responsibility but that employers and our profession at large [have] a part to play in making the practice of law healthy is a good first step. Taking care of employees and remunerating them fairly is part of that wellbeing aspect, as is ensuring that you have adequate resources within workplaces to avoid burnout. Legal practice can at times be isolated and an individual pursuit, but our profession is and should operate as a community.”

Editors note: Ms Lefebvre provided her comments in her capacity as the President of Victorian Women Lawyers and not as a representative of her employer.