All lawyers should be made equal, but some are clearly more equal than others.
When I was at school I very distinctly remember being told that ‘the world was my oyster’ and I could be whatever and whoever I wanted to be. I imagine that similar messages intended to inspire young women are given out today – I will certainly be encouraging my daughter to reach for the stars (not necessarily literally). What they didn’t tell me, as possibilities raced through my mind, was that I could do whatever I wanted, but I shouldn’t expect to get paid as much as a man.
Shockingly, over 20 years later, women are still earning 15.5% less per hour than their male counterparts. That’s the equivalent of men working all year and women working for free after 2 November. A report published by the Chartered Management Institute suggests women may have to wait another 98 years for equal pay, long after both I and my daughter will have received our last payslips.
This research echoes a comprehensive survey on pay in the legal profession by the Law Society in 2008. It showed male solicitors earned, on average, more than £19,000 than their female counterparts. It also found that white solicitors earned, on average, £10,000 more than their black or ethnic minority colleagues.
The legal profession is not, of course, the only culprit. However, in many ways its failure to address this problem is of greater consequence. Equality underpins the rule of law, so it seems rather perverse that lawyers have been unable to ensure equality in their own profession. But perhaps not surprising.
The image of the legal profession as an all-white middle-aged male preserve is a pervasive one. Even though more than half of new solicitors are women and about a fifth are black and minority ethnic (BME) trainees, the further up the tree you climb the whiter and more male it becomes, until, at the top, you find 75% of partners are men and only 5% are from BME backgrounds.
This is depressing stuff. Women got the vote in 1928. The Equal Pay Act came into force 40 years ago. So what’s going on? Who can there possibly be left who doesn’t realise that penalising women in this way is counterproductive and wrong? And who is there who believes that anyone white can do the job, any job, better than someone who is black or of another ethnicity? Shockingly, direct discrimination lingers on. But equally intractable is the culture of many law firms, particularly those in the city:
- A lack of openness and transparency makes pay comparisons almost impossible, and, coupled with women’s traditionally less forthright attitude towards their salaries, this fuels the pay gap.
- A lack of awareness among BME legal students about the ‘hidden’ criteria firms look for, such as extra-curricular activities (presumably not just playing golf), means they overwhelmingly end up in personal injury, family and immigration, often in high street firms.
- A lack of flexible working and a long-hours culture disproportionately affect women as the main caregivers.
A study published today showed that last year the number of women opting to look after their children instead of doing paid employment increased by 32,000, largely because of childcare costs. Many women would choose to be the ones to stay at home. But as long as the pay gap persists, the more likely it is that a woman, rather than a higher-earning man, will have to give up or suspend her career to stay at home.
Over decades, this culture has become embedded by a personal bias that makes us more likely to recruit someone we think will ‘get on around here’ or who is ‘our sort of person’. Given some of the lawyers I’ve worked with, this is definitely not a good thing. It also means the white middle-aged men leading most law firms will, therefore, promote and recruit yet more white middle-aged men.
As if that isn’t all bad enough, the record of the profession in securing new entrants from different socio-economic groups isn’t that splendid either. City lawyers, in particular, are seven times as likely to have been privately educated than the general population. With tuition fees rising, a student coming out of their legal training could have a debt of up to £70,000 hanging over their head, hardly conducive to improving the equality and diversity of the profession.
However, all hope it not lost…from 2012 the Legal Services Board (LSB) will require the legal regulators to ensure firms collect information on the age, gender, disability, ethnicity, religion or belief, sexual orientation and caring responsibilities of their staff. As well as promoting transparency, this will provide an evidence base to inform policy. The Law Society is also considering encouraging firms to undertake annual pay audits and is drawing up an action plan to tackle the equality and diversity problems in the profession.
Well this is all great. But I do have to rather wonder why it has taken them so long. Maybe because it was a ‘challenge’ to ensure all the Society's 486 council and committee members undertook online equality and diversity training. I mean, come on, if the leaders of the profession have to be dragged kicking and screaming, what can we expect from the rest of them? Needless to say, its response to all this data collection has not been wholly positive.
I don’t mean to be cynical. It’s clear the LSB is taking this seriously, as is, finally, the Law Society. But action plans, protocols and quotas aren’t going to change the cultures or attitudes that ensure the white male elite at the top of law firms self-replicates.
The problem is far wider than the legal profession and so, therefore, are the answers. I don’t know what they are. All I know is that, whatever I do to support and promote my daughter in her choice of career, she is probably going to be paid less than the boy next door. And that’s not progress. It’s not progress at all.