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Bridging the gender pay gap

09 October 2015 | tagged Current issues | Opinion

Rob Marrs

Rob Marrs, senior policy manager at the Society, shines a light on one of the biggest issues facing the legal profession: the gender pay gap.

Last week I listened to one of the UK’s leading specialists on ‘unconscious bias’. He explained this term by showing research where men and women evaluated the same CV – one with a female name at the top, one with a male name at the top. On average both the ‘’hireability’’ and competency of the male candidate was judged to be higher. Even more worryingly, on average believed that the starting salary for the male candidate should be around £3.5k more than the female candidate. The men and women evaluating the CVs agreed on all this.

This depressing message links to the biggest issue the profession faces in terms of equality and diversity – indeed, arguably, the biggest issue the profession faces at all: the gender pay gap.

The key is: it isn’t just about pay. It’s about pay, bonuses, conditions, hiring, and career progression. It’s a Gordian knot, but sadly there doesn’t seem to be an Alexander the Great-style solution.

The first thing we need is a better understanding

The biggest issue is getting people to understand what the pay gap is and what the pay gap is not. Whenever I’ve spoken to lawyers they tell me they find it unthinkable that anyone in the profession would pay similarly-qualified people differently. But it happens.

There may, for example, be one person who has additional responsibility at the organisation, or who has negotiated a better deal when hired laterally than someone who has risen through the ranks. Pay bands will also play a part here.

So equal pay is an important part of the gender pay gap, but it is only part of it. Too often people take their understanding of pay equality at their own firm and apply it across an entire profession but – as we all know – the plural of anecdote is not data. It is perfectly possible for men on the same band to be paid the same as women and there still to be a pay gap in the organisation – if men are more likely to progress to higher paid roles.

What exactly is the ‘gender pay gap’?

The gender pay gap can be calculated in different ways but is best described as the difference between male and female earnings – and is usually expressed as a percentage of male earnings. According to our Profile of the Profession report, the gender pay gap in the Scottish solicitor profession is stark. The average full-time equivalent male salary is £77,095 compared to the average full-time equivalent female salary of £44,500. We aren’t unique here. Most professions and jurisdictions are dealing with this issue (the American Bar Association, for instance, has published numerous documents recently). The UK Government intends to force large employers to publish their gender pay gap data. The Scottish Government is also consulting on the pay gap at present. That we aren’t unique doesn’t justify our position, however.

Looking at the causes

The gender pay gap in the early stages of one’s career is low. It seems to accelerate around the time women generally choose to become mothers. The thing is, it widens for women who choose not to become mothers too.

Motherhood is one of the reasons the gap exists but not the only one. For example the choices organisations make in hiring, promotion and partnership rounds is a huge factor. If women are less likely to be given opportunities – for whatever reason! – then they will make less money and be less likely to make partner. If women are less likely to become partners (and, yes, we all know some women who have actively opted out of partnership. Remember the anecdote/data gag) then they will make less money. If women are less likely to become directors in-house then they will make less money. If women find it harder to move roles in their 30s because they don’t want to lose accrued maternity rights in their current role then they will make less money – men, unburdened by such concerns, can jump ship more easily if they hit a plateau.

And that’s before we discuss ideas like women being more likely to choose – or worse be pushed towards – certain (potentially less well-remunerated) work; differences in approach between the genders to salary negotiations; breaks in employment; the effect of a potential break might have on salary negotiations; differences in work experiences (so post qualification experience as a metric rewards those who don’t go on maternity leave).

It’s also before we discuss unconscious bias within recruitment decisions and compensation frameworks; majority-male management teams or remuneration committees; the failure to be given credit for work accomplishments; and the exclusion from client origination and development opportunities. Not all of these will be present at every organisation but all exist to varying extents in the profession.

Complex, right?

The sources of the problem are important because unless we understand them, we can’t identify solutions. And as with any complex, systematic and, arguably, societal issue, it’s likely that there are short-term wins and longer-term battles.

But things will only change if it is recognised that change must happen.  Many employers are taking steps to address the gender dynamics of their senior management. One partner at a large firm told me that this was their ‘biggest strategic priority’.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if women make up 65-70% of law students and trainee solicitors that there are problems ahead for the profession if we don’t get this right.

So what can you do?

Have a look at the Society’s new equality & diversity standards – these should be able to be adopted by organisations of all sizes. If you have questions about how to embed them in your organisation then please get in touch at  As well as this, you could undertake an equal pay audit.  A further step would be to begin to analyse how your systems and processes affect women – it may be that the structures in relation to reward and promotion needs to change.  For those in private practice: are you transparent about how you promote to partner?

We were astonished – and heartened – by the response to our publication of the gender pay gap statistics. The message from the profession, and wider society, was that the time for change was now. Let’s do it.

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