Unequal pay is not the only source of inequality between men and women in the law. But it is a fact of legal life, and addressing it would be a huge step towards equality. According to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings 2016, women in the legal profession are paid 10.3 % less than men on average as a solicitor and 12.6% less at associate level.
When I first qualified pay was a taboo subject. Nobody talked about pay and salary rises or offers were always discussed behind closed doors. I put a postcard on my office wall of two little toddlers, one a boy and one a girl. Both children were gazing into their underpants and the caption above the post card read, ‘that explains the difference in our pay’. I also used to point it out to male colleagues.
I probably thought about it more than the average solicitor because I qualified later after working in the public sector, where there was an open pay structure. People doing the same job in the same position got the same pay in the main. Everyone received the same annual rise and there was an annual appraisal structure with a set award scheme. Pay could be challenged and reviewed via a set process to which everyone had access.
By contrast, I think salaries in law are principally determined by what firms believe they can get away with. In my opinion, men have been better at asking for what they want pay-wise and standing up for their worth. Research now suggests this is changing and that firms could miss out on talent by not closing the gap. While I believe the factors that got us here are not straightforward, I do believe the solution is very simple. If you do the same job you should get the same pay.
I have seen the impact of the gender gap destroy the morale of a team. In one case, I was sad to witness a talented group of solicitors leave one by one, all because a man let slip his pay. Although he was not a qualified solicitor, he was on more than all the qualified women solicitors in that same team who were below the level of associate. The morale of the team could not be fixed. There is a business argument to say that addressing the gender pay gap leads to more engagement and trust from employees, which can only lead to more productivity.
The gender gap has much more far-reaching consequences. Women do not just lose out on what they could be earning over a career; it also impacts upon their retirement in that they have less money to put by for a pension.
I am not naive enough to believe that by addressing the pay gap all gender inequality will be resolved. But I am wise enough to know that it will go a long way towards advancing gender equality in the workplace. All UK employers with over 250 employees are now required to report their gender pay gaps by April 2018. I commend Shoosmiths for publishing its data in advance of this date, and not only recognising the shortfall in its statistics but addressing the issue by establishing a Gender Equality Working Group reporting directly to the firm’s board.
As an individual I did not believe that I could make a difference. I remember watching the film Made in Dagenham and feeling quite despondent, wondering whether we had really made any significant changes in equal pay.
My resolve was to apply to be a committee member in the Women Lawyers Division of the Law Society because it is important to me to want to ensure that my voice joins with other voices to influence change and raise awareness on a multiplicity of issues affecting female legal professionals.
I am now on the committee and work with a team of like-minded women representing various stages of the legal profession with an agenda to address this issue and many more affecting our profession.
Jane Flaherty of Greenways Law is a Law Society Women Lawyers Division committee member.