Mind the Gap

I laughed/cried recently reading a post on the satirical website “The Shovel” – “New ultra-realistic Barbie Doll earns 85% of Ken’s salary.”[1] If Barbie was a lawyer, we could change that figure to 64% - and that’s not satire. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) has released data showing that for full time employees in Legal Services the gender pay gap is 35.6%.[2] By way of comparison, the gender pay gap in the private sector is 22.4% and rising, in the public service the gender pay gap is 12.3% and falling[3].

What does the gender pay gap mean you ask? It shows the “differences in earnings between women and men across the board. It is not a like-for-like analysis of women and men doing the same job…”[4] So this doesn’t mean that women lawyers taken individually are earning 35.6% less than male lawyers in the same role. But taken as a group, they are indeed earning that much less.

Women Lawyers Associations and women lawyers generally have lamented over many years the lack of women in senior positions in the profession and the difficulty facing women returning to legal practice after having children.  What has changed in recent times is that this is no longer an issue for women lawyers, but for all lawyers, and indeed for the whole community.[5] Flexible work practices, for example, are not and should not be seen as something only women employees require. In a recent Lawyer’s Weekly article the head of CBP Lawyers, Dunstan De Souza is reported to have said: “In our profession, anything less than 40 per cent of female partners is a failure. If you are anything less than that, you have to keep trying.”[6] Bravo to that.

Gender Pay Gap Australia

Source: The Australian

The factors causing the gender pay gap in law are complex, as are the range of solutions being considered. The Australian Law Council issued its National Attrition and Re-Engagement Strategy (NARS Report)[7] in 2014 looking at the reasons women leave the profession and the barriers to re-engagement, for example, after having children.  Others have looked at the causes for the gender pay gap across all occupations,[8] including definition of merit and the value given to “women’s work”, systemic and social factors, discrimination including unconscious bias and lack of flexible work.[9]

It makes sense to look at why the public sector has the lowest, and falling, gender pay gap. The head of the WGEA, Louise McSorley, attributes the much lower pay gap in the public sector to wage transparency, noting that in the corporate world pay is negotiated individually and often secretly, to the disadvantage of women.[10]Women lawyers tended to underrate their ability when it came to remuneration discussions” says Sue Kench, Managing Partner at King & Wood Mallesons, “Women can be high performers. The challenge is, men think they are better than they are and women tend to underrate themselves.”[11] The CEO of Reddit, Ellen Pao, has done away with pay negotiations altogether, agreeing that this disadvantages women and doesn’t promote diversity.[12]

In short, there is much to be done in the legal profession to address the gender pay gap and diversity generally, but a growing will to do it. Bring on Barbie SC!

Margie Rowe is an ANU Legal Workshop​ law lecturer and family lawyer with aspirations to change the world, or failing that, to live at the coast with her golden retriever (and her human family). This post was brought to you by ANU Legal Workshop - Australia's leading and largest university provider of professional legal education.


[2] WGEA http://data.wgea.gov.au/industry.html?id=723&compid=2 at 16 April 2015. Based on the 2013/14 reporting period.

[4] WGEA Research Executive Manager Dr Carla Harris https://www.wgea.gov.au/news-and-media/national-gender-pay-gap-record-high-188 as at 16 April 2015

[5] Goldman Sachs JB Were, Australia’s Hidden Resource: The Economic Case for Increasing Female Participation, estimated that closing the gap between male and female employment would boost Australia’s GDP by 11%: http://www.asx.com.au/documents/about/gsjbw_economic_case_for_increasing_female_participation.pdf

As at 16 April 2015

[6] http://www.lawyersweekly.com.au/news/16361-quotas-out-retention-in-for-boosting-diversity

[8] The WGEA and the Diversity Council for example.

[9] Smith’s Lawyers, Is Ambition a Dirty Word? Closing the Gender Pay Gap, http://www.smithslawyers.com.au/closing-the-gender-pay-gap/ at 16 April 2015