Female law grad pay inequity

I doubt that it’s controversial to say that Australian law firms are not adequately addressing the fundamental gender shift that has been occurring for a good many years in the legal work force.

As long ago as 2009, it was reported that women comprised almost 60% of the undergrad cohort at Monash Uni Law School.  When I attended a prize-giving ceremony for that law school in 2010, my rough count showed that 70% of the prize-winners were women.  My gut feeling is that these figures would be representative of the proportion, and relative quality, of female law graduates across most if not all Australian law schools in recent years.

Despite this, it is a truism that women still are under-represented at senior levels in private law firms, at the bar and in the judiciary.  So there’s been an understandable focus today on the results of a survey showing that pay for female law graduates in Australia is about 8% lower than for male law grads (the link above is to a press release that summarises the survey results.  There is a further link to the detailed results in the press release).

Readers of the commentary about the survey who have not read the report itself might think that the survey results show that there are significant numbers of women grads working in law firms, doing the same work as their male grad colleagues in the same law firms but being paid 8% less.  That was certainly my first reaction and it is also the reaction of Australian Women Lawyers, who earlier today posted a press release that says in part “Paying a male graduate lawyer a starting salary higher than a female graduate lawyer in the same office is sexist and blatantly discriminatory.”

But do the survey results support this conclusion?  On my reading of them, the salary figures reported in the survey don’t relate only to law grads who have started work in the legal “industry” let alone in private law firms.  The survey reports on the starting salaries of law graduates who were in their first full-time employment in 2012 and doesn’t expressly state that this relates to employment in the legal profession.

Even if my reading of the survey results is correct, the survey results are disturbing; they show that, on average, a woman graduating with a law degree at the end of 2012 was going to be paid significantly less than her male colleagues.  This is not acceptable.

I might be wrong, but my experience has been that salary levels for grads and junior lawyers within each of the mid-size and large law firms where I have worked were standardised across the firm; individual salary differentials don’t usually emerge until after lawyers have been in the system for 2 or 3 years.  It seems to me that there must be other more subtle reasons for the inequity revealed by the survey.  These could include:

  • are women law grads over-represented in non-legal jobs/industries that don’t pay as well (perhaps because they are treated as less desirable “women’s work”)?
  • are women grads who have started to work in the law over-represented in smaller firms, or other organisations (such as government and not for profit bodies) that pay less and, if so, why?
  • related to the previous point, is there any evidence that larger, higher paying firms discriminate against women when hiring grads (for example if numbers of male and female grads in these organisations are roughly equal then that would suggest that there is a bias if the student number proportions and (anecdotal) prize-winner figures referred to above are correct)?
  • are any women law grads working part time and therefore being paid less (it’s not clear from the survey results whether this has been factored in)?

The survey authors (page 10) point to this potential complexity when they state (at page 10 of the survey):

When males and females have studied in the same field, differing employment factors such as occupation, type and location of employer, or the hours worked, can also have an effect on earnings.”

It would be interesting and potentially useful to see some follow up analysis of the figures from the survey and, where necessary, some additional research to shed light on the reasons for what remains an unacceptable situation.


About noonanite

Paul Noonan is a lawyer and musician based in Melbourne, Australia.
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