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‘Compositional’ issues in law spur gender pay gap

Understanding why fewer women progress to senior and partnership roles in law is critical to closing the gender pay gap, according to the WGEA.

user iconMalavika Santhebennur 12 October 2023 Big Law
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Ahead of the Women in Law Forum 2023, Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) chief executive Mary Wooldridge argued that the gender pay gap in law is driven by “significant compositional issues” in senior and partnership roles.

Recent WGEA data showed that the gender pay gap stands at 22.8 per cent in the private sector, including private practice law firms.

The gender pay gap persists despite female solicitors continuing to outnumber their male counterparts and dominating in every area of the legal profession. There are many indications that women are leaving the profession earlier than men, who make up the majority of leaders within the profession.


Indeed, Ms Wooldridge said, men entering a law firm are four times more likely to become a partner than a woman.

“What we still see with numbers across the board is that while about two-thirds of law graduates are women, only one-third of partners in law firms are women,” Ms Wooldridge told Lawyers Weekly.

“Lawyers work in many areas, but we still see a dramatic discrepancy between the proportion of women in early stage and lower-paid roles, and those in senior and partnership roles, which are highly remunerated.”

Her comments preceded the Women in Law Forum 2023, where she and a panel of speakers will discuss strategies to bridge the gender pay gap and unpack the barriers that hinder the progress of women into leadership roles and how to overcome them.

Understanding the root cause of disparity

Resolving these issues requires awareness, where employers must understand why women are being recruited in large numbers but few progress to partnership roles.

While Ms Wooldridge suggested that some women may choose not to pursue those roles due to various reasons, including parental and caregiving responsibilities, she said employers must ask more questions.

“They need to ask why more women aren’t returning to work,” Ms Wooldridge asked.

“What is it about the structure and nature of the work or the organisation that means women who are parents are choosing not to return to that environment? How could we shift this? What’s happening to men who are taking time off work to fulfil their parental responsibilities? Are there stereotypes in relation to expectations of who does these roles within firms?

“There’s a whole set of analysis that needs to take place to understand what’s driving this massive differential.”

According to Ms Wooldridge, there is some evidence that suggests that some female jobseekers are choosing roles with moderately lower salaries than accepting a job with an organisation that has a wide gender pay gap.

“Women are making these choices because the gender pay gap is a proxy for gender equality in an organisation,” she said.

“They’re taking that as a signal for what that environment is like when choosing where they work. But there’s no doubt that employers must take action to address the gender pay gap, composition, and the biases that exist to create an equal environment.”

Pay transparency laws an opportunity

To facilitate this, the WGEA will publish gender pay gaps in 2024 for employers with 100 or more employees, extending the current reporting at the industry level to individual employers.

Tracey Matthews, director of talent management and organisational development at WTW, recently wrote that the new disclosure laws will reveal what tangible outcomes firms are delivering from their diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies.

According to Ms Wooldridge, evidence from the UK has shown that shining a light on employer gender pay gaps has led to a reduction in the overall gap.

“Reporting this motivates organisations (particularly those that have large gender pay gaps) to work to bring those gender pay gaps down. We’re trying to achieve this acceleration of change,” she said.

Ms Wooldridge added that in a tight labour market where organisations are competing for talent, this is an opportunity for them to conduct the analysis, understand what changes are required, and implement them to attract and retain talent.

“Employees are concerned about high gender pay gaps, but what they want to know is that their employer is genuine about addressing them,” she concluded.

To hear more from Mary Wooldridge about how law firms could contribute to closing the gender pay gap and ensuring the financial wellbeing of women, come along to the Women in Law Forum 2023.

It will be held on Thursday, 23 November, at Crown Melbourne.

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

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

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