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Gender pay gap

09 November 2015

As part of #EqualPayDay, Asif Afridi and Roseanne Russell consider the gender pay gap and look at the legal framework that outlines employers' responsibilities.

Despite advances in recent years, the issue of ensuring men and women are treated equally, including in terms of remuneration, still appears tricky to solve.

Gross discrepancies

Like many other sectors in the UK, there are gender pay gaps in the legal sector that have proven hard to shift. In 2014 the gender pay gap across all private practice solicitors in England stood at 30 per cent (Law Society 2014). This gap is more substantial than that in the wider market, where women earn 19.1 per cent less than men (measured by gross hourly pay) in the same year. 

Taking action

There is evidence to suggest law firms are beginning to take equal pay gaps seriously. For example, in 2013 the Law Society's Diversity and Inclusion Charter showed 45 per cent of large firms had a written commitment to equal pay and had plans to conduct an equal pay review. However, only 22 per cent of firms had actually completed an equal pay audit and were following processes to ensure equal pay.

An important catalyst for law firms to take action on the pay gap is the government's commitment to requiring businesses with more than 250 employees to publish information on the gender pay gap. A consultation on the form that any Regulations would take has recently closed (September 2015) and the government is currently analysing the responses received.

The legal framework for equal pay

Although we do not yet know the detail of any future Regulations, section 78 of the Equality Act 2010 gives the government the ability to make these Regulations and provides a clue as to what the Regulations may contain. Section 78(1) states that Regulations 'may require employers to publish information for the purpose of showing whether ... there are differences in pay of male and female employees', and any Regulations may further prescribe descriptions of the information to be published and the form and manner any publication should take. Publication would be on an annual basis (section 78(3)) and failure to comply could result in a fine of up to £5,000 (section 78(5)(a)). It is anticipated that the Regulations will be available for consultation in late 2015 and come into force by spring 2016.

Although it appears unlikely that the Regulations will require a detailed pay audit to be carried out on an annual basis (section 78 suggests that only a more general overview of the pay gap will be necessary), it is clear that many law firms will be caught by the Regulations given the number of staff employed. 

What we're doing

A key priority for the Law Society over the coming years is to promote progress on equal pay across the legal sector. In particular, we have responded to calls from our members for more practical advice and best practice on how to respond to equal pay legal obligations. 

The resulting guidance, written by BRAP (UK-based equality and diversity experts) offers hands-on, practical advice for law firms of all sizes. 

Our practice note and toolkit, published on 9 November 2015, covers how firms can respond to technical processes associated with equal pay law. The equal pay practice note focuses on what you should do to respond to your legal duties, while the toolkit provides advice on how to do it, such as how to conduct 'equal pay audits' as well as more preventative activities that firms can take to reduce the risk of inequality creeping into their pay systems in the long term.

The toolkit refers particularly to gender pay inequalities, but the principles within it can be similarly applied to other groups protected under the Equality Act 2010. 

View the equal pay toolkit and practice note

Download our free webinar on equal pay


Tags: equality | justice

About the author

Asif Afridi is a published researcher with practical national and international experience of promoting equality and human rights. He is deputy CEO at BRAP, a national equality and human rights advisory organisation. Asif is also vice chair of the Equality and Diversity Forum - a network of national equality charities.
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Roseanne Russell is a lecturer at Cardiff University, focusing on the intersection between labour law, feminist theory, and company law. With over a decade of experience in leading regional and City firms, Roseanne is also an appointed member of the Law Society’s Employment Law Committee.

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