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Combating the (ever-pervasive) gender pay gap in law

While women won the right to equal pay in 1969, the gender pay gap still exists – while progress is being made, firms are being urged to implement various policies to help address it.

user iconLauren Croft 07 August 2023 Big Law
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Despite female solicitors continuing to outnumber their male counterparts and dominating in every area of the legal profession, the gender pay gap still exists in law, with many indications that women are leaving the profession earlier than men, who make up the majority of leaders within the profession.

This is reflected in new insights released by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) – the Commonwealth Public Sector Gender Equality Snapshot shows women are paid, on average, 88¢ on the dollar compared to men. This compares to 77¢ on the dollar in the private sector.

This means that in the private sector – including private practice law firms – the gender pay gap stands at 22.8 per cent.


In addition, data published last month showed that women in Australia work for 56 days after the end of the financial year to earn the same as men, with WGEA making 25 August Equal Pay Day for 2023.

WGEA chief executive Mary Wooldridge said the insights were a promising indicator of efforts to address gender inequality in the workforce and to close the gender pay gap but shows there’s still work to be done.

“Policies like publicly advertised salary levels, target setting, regular employee consultation and comprehensive access to paid parental leave help the public sector lead in workplace gender equality,” she said.

“However, these results also show that many of these policies have focused on women rather than all employees. This is particularly the case for support for parents and carers. The result is that the uptake of paid primary carers leave by men is at a rate similar to the private sector (13.5 per cent in the public sector and 13 per cent in the private sector).

“To advance gender equality, we need to shift cultural norms and pervasive gender stereotypes that reinforce an unequal share of parenting and act as a barrier to women’s full participation in the workforce. This snapshot indicates some employers may still be approaching gender equality as a ‘women’s issue’. However, meaningful change requires a focus on improving the workplace experiences of women and men.”

This comes after the Australian Parliament passed the Workplace Gender Equality Amendment (Closing the Gender Pay Gap) Bill 2023 in March, which requires the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) to publish employer gender pay gaps, for private sector employers, from early 2024.

Global firms that have released their gender pay gap information in the UK include Herbert Smith Freehills, Dentons, Ashurst, Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance, which all also have Australian presences.

In the lead-up to gender pay gap reporting for firms in Australia becoming mandatory, Lawyers Weekly asked those firms whether they were planning on publicly releasing that data sooner than early 2024. None directly responded to this particular query, but did provide responses which you can read here.

Making progress, but not soon enough

Earlier this year, Lawyers Weekly’s Legal Firm of Choice Survey showed that women and junior lawyers were among the most likely to leave their firms. This came after law firm leaders emphasised the importance of flexibility, particularly for working parents, as female lawyers are more likely to face the “motherhood penalty” and be disproportionately impacted by inflation, with some saying the traditional nine to five is “redundant” and “sexist”.

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Lander & Rogers chief executive partner Genevieve Collins said that while the legal industry is not where it needs to be, progress takes time.

“While law firms continue to make progress in achieving gender balance and minimising the gender pay gap, unwinding institutionalised bias takes time, purpose and commitment. Organisations need to look at every aspect of their recruitment and retention strategy, monitor their performance and identify areas for improvement. To achieve real change, this requires a coordinated approach and buy-in across the business,” she said.

“All organisations should be identifying and removing structural impediments to women progressing their careers and achieving pay parity with their male colleagues.”

In practice, this includes introducing family-friendly policies and leading parental leave policies, which a number of firms have done, ensuring gender-balanced promotions through targeted mentoring and opportunities and promoting flexibility, Ms Collins outlined.

“The traditional operating model of law firms is out of step with the needs of modern professionals, and particularly women with caring responsibilities, who demand greater flexibility and work/life balance. Lander & Rogers has a fully hybrid and flexible working policy, which our people tell us allows them to balance their personal and professional responsibilities,” she added.

“Lander & Rogers conducts firmwide and level-by-level pay reviews annually, and we’ve introduced a comprehensive process to allow for centralised parity by gender, role, location, and employment status.”

The promotion of women is an important issue within private practice, as well as ensuring “greater representation at partnership and leadership levels”, a spokesperson for Herbert Smith Freehills told Lawyers Weekly.

The firm expects to “strike representational parity” at 50 per cent before 2030.

“More broadly, the legal sector is heading in the right direction but is not there yet,” the spokesperson said.

“Private practice has to ensure women are supported to progress beyond senior associate or mid-management. In addition to targets, there needs to be continued focus on the partner pipeline, sponsorship of talent and showcasing of a more diverse range of role models.

“The legal sector needs to also acknowledge the intersectional issues – in particular, for women from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. And across all businesses, in all sectors, there needs to be continued support for men to take on more parental responsibilities – something WGEA has again emphasised.”

Legislative reforms, such as the prohibition of a pay secrecy clause in contracts and mandating the publishing of gender pay gap information of employers with 100 or more employees, will also “drive positive change by encouraging transparency and spotlighting pay discrepancies”, Ms Collins added.

“With women making up more than half of practising solicitors in Australia, it simply makes sense to have gender representation at all levels of an organisation,” she said.

“It’s well documented that gender-diverse teams perform above average and report higher levels of employee satisfaction.”