Working smarter, not harder, to address the gender pay gap in the legal profession

Professor Chantal Davies offers practical measures to help law firms understand how their own nuanced challenges may be contributing to gender pay disparity.
Asian woman working while men in background are chatting

It’s been over four years since the Gender Pay Gap Reporting Regulations came into force. These require organisations with 250 or more employees to submit their gender pay gap data to the national gender pay gap service.

The regulations were a welcome step in pushing for an evidence-based approach to addressing gender pay disparities, as this entrenched issue is fundamental to tackling wider gender inequality in the legal sector and beyond.

However, Law Society analysis of recent data paints a disappointing picture. Its research looks at the gender pay gap reports of over 40 of the largest firms submitting data for the April 2020 pay period (the latest reported).

Despite a wealth of guidance on addressing the gender pay gaps available from the Law Society, Government Equalities Office, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, there’s been minimal reduction of the gap across the sector.

The average gap in men and women’s mean hourly pay was 14% and in median pay it was 12.6% across all organisations reporting in the latest round, regardless of sector.

For the 42 largest law firms, the subject of the Law Society’s report, the average gap in mean hourly pay was 20.3% and for median hourly pay it was 32.4%.

What more can be done?

The Law Society provided guidance on best practice for gender pay gap reporting after the regulations came into effect.

The Law Society’s Women in Leadership Programme and the Women in Law Pledge have also provided key insights and guidance on what’s needed to address structural gender inequalities.

Therefore, one wonders why progress remains slow and what more the profession should be doing beyond the wealth of guidance and recommendations that already exist.

Perhaps the key is to work smarter, rather than harder, to address the gender pay gap across the sector.

Consider your firm’s unique perspective

When faced with an embedded problem, the temptation is to engage in a flurry of activity and action planning.

However, the real emphasis needs to be on ensuring that – in following the guidance and pledge – law firms are not just ticking a box to produce a data report and narrative.

Instead, they should be using these to inform and enact real change.

This requires a far more thorough and nuanced analysis of collected data to determine where specific issues exist.

For example, on analysis, the data collected may point to pay disparities resulting from or perpetuated by:

  • gender segregation in particular legal disciplines, or
  • part-time and flexible working

It is only with full analysis that law firms can begin to develop actions which meaningfully address the key issues.

This way, firms can develop approaches that are going to work for their own organisation based on their own specific data, rather than rolling out token initiatives which are not supported by evidence.

Ultimately, it is about firms understanding their own unique context to achieve progress in pay parity.

Applying a holistic approach

Law firms also need a more robust life-cycle approach to gender pay disparities at each level, and to develop clear actions to prevent these disparities from continuing.

This will mean:

  • analysing the gender pay gap data to determine where specific gender disparities exist
  • developing robust and proportionate initiatives and actions to address these specific disparities
  • regularly reviewing and assessing the impact of these initiatives (adapting and developing as necessary)

Similarly, law firms must develop an understanding of the link between gender pay disparities and broader gender inequality; and seek to develop actions which complement each other and link together.

Too often, initiatives are implemented in isolation – without considering the holistic approach.

Other areas to consider

Beyond more nuanced data analysis and a holistic approach to the gender pay gap, there are some wider suggestions that may assist law firms.

Targeted positive action

Consider promoting more robust targeted positive action – such as the ‘tie-break’ provisions under the Equality Act 2010 – to select women where they are under-represented within particular legal disciplines/areas/levels.

Recommended in the Women in Leadership in Law roundtable report, this could be a particularly useful tool in addressing pay disparity as a result of obstacles to promotion and where law firms are using targets as a means of meeting the recommendations of the Women in Law Pledge.

Focus on competency

Competency-based assessments are vital when assessing value for remuneration and promotion.

Law firms need to ensure focus isn’t solely on billable hours in this regard.

For example, in salary decisions, law firms should recognise vital ‘housekeeping activity’ rather than ‘glory work’.

Go beyond reporting

There needs to be greater visibility of actions being taken by law firms to address the gender pay gap.

The pay gap reporting narrative is a good way of doing this but it needs to be effectively promoted and justified beyond the basic reporting mechanism.

Be transparent on pay

More transparency on pay and reward systems, and in salary negotiations, is vital.

Equally, there is a need for more transparency in bonus allocation – particularly for objective criteria and female representation in the decision-making process.

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