The latest Law Society statistics tell of a steady increase in the number of female solicitors. With 53 per cent of practising solicitors now women, is this historically male-dominated industry at last entering an age of gender equality? Sadly, no. In fact, however encouraging this latest data, it still masks a glaring and persistent inequality between genders when it comes to pay.
A recent Major, Lindsey & Africa global in-house compensation survey revealed that UK female general counsel earn a base salary that is more than $80,000 below that of their male counterparts. The Law Society has figures on private practice suggesting a stubborn gender pay gap of 32 per cent among major law firms, compared to a gap of 12 per cent among UK businesses at large. If more is not done to close this gap, the wealth of female talent entering the industry risks being stifled or simply lost to other professions.
While female solicitors are being hired, they could often be viewed as the more affordable option compared with their male equivalents. Re-thinking how we talk about salary can help redress the balance. For instance, instead of asking a candidate for the current salary details — and thereby perpetuating previous pay inequalities — companies should ask for the candidate’s expectations and female candidates should, instead of citing their current salary, state their salary expectation for a new role.
The UK could learn from the US in this respect, by working to remove the taboo surrounding conversations on pay. In most states in the US, companies are no longer allowed to ask candidates for their current pay and this instantly reframes the parameters of the negotiation and discourages low-ball offers. It also shifts the emphasis onto the value of the role in question, as opposed to how much of an increase, if any, a candidate would get.
Beyond this, greater focus needs to be directed to the long-term retention of female solicitors. In our parental leave survey last year, 28 per cent of lawyers felt that their partnership prospects were adversely affected by taking parental leave.
Overcoming these concerns may require a wholesale reassessment of culture, a challenge that we know many firms and businesses are trying to embrace. Perhaps the world of law could take its lead from NatWest, which recently announced a new policy that allows all new parents to take up to a year off regardless of their gender, going some way to levelling the playing field for parents.
Will law firms match this move and grant new fathers 12 months’ leave? We’ll wait to see. What is clear is that those willing to take a bold approach to closing their gender pay gaps will have an opportunity to carve out a compelling point of difference that could put them ahead of the pack when it comes to attracting and retaining the best female talent.