Understanding the Gender Wage Gap in the Legal Profession

Learn More About the Gender Wage Gap Affecting the Legal Industry

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By now, you’ve likely heard about the gender wage gap—it exists in all industries, although the percentages vary. The gender wage gap is defined as “the difference between women’s and men’s average weekly full-time equivalent earnings, expressed as a percentage of men’s earnings.” Closing the gender wage gap has been on the minds of many people, both in positions of power and your average middle-of-the-road worker. In fact, the gender wage gap was first brought to the attention of the United States in 1963, when the Equal Pay Act was signed by President John F. Kennedy. While that was a good start—it raised a woman’s average earnings from 62% of a man’s to almost 80% by 2004—the goal has not yet been achieved. It was again brought up in 2009 when President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, which overturned the holding of the Supreme Court case Ledbetter v. Goodyear, which limited employees’ ability to sue for arguably inequitable pay decisions. Even after all of the work and the policies passed, women are still only earning 78 cents to the man’s dollar, on average.

All of those statistics consider all lines of work in which both men and women are employed. How does the legal profession hold up?

The Legal Gender Wage Gap

According to a study published on PayScale, legal occupations see some of the highest wage gaps not controlled by education or experience, some as high as 38.6 percent. While this looks and sounds like a catastrophic gap that may never close, there are some noticeable caveats to that statistic. First, while there are more women working in legal professions than men (at 68 percent), men dominate the higher-paying and higher-ranking legal jobs. In addition, this statistic includes legal support workers, such as paralegals and secretaries, which would give the statistics a certain skew, because these lower-status jobs are more likely to be filled by women.

The wage gap in the legal industry, however, is a very real thing for women to consider. Here are the highlights concerning the wage gap among lawyers.

Female Lawyers are Paid Less No Matter How Long or Hard They Work

In a report released by Sky Analytics, a legal invoicing company, it was confirmed that women at law firms can work more hours and have more years of experience, but they are still earning less money than their male counterparts. This is in large part because they are billed at often significantly lower rates than men. The report also showed that women bill an average of 24 minutes more each day than men do. These statistics highlight the fact that while women work more, men still make more money.

The Wage Gap among Equity Partners has Widened

This may seem surprising since an increasing number of women (and men) are starting to speak out about the wage gap and the lack of females at the tops of firms and companies, but the wage gap of equity partners at law firms has widened. This is in large part because the number of female equity partners across law firms has barely increased in recent years, but is also showing the lack of pay increase that women get once they are at the top.

Practice Area May Play a Role

While many of the statistics about the wage gap in legal professions are very discouraging, there is one aspect that may put some of it into perspective. Within the law, there are many different practice areas, and each has its own set of wage averages and male to female lawyer ratios. It appears that women more often end up practicing in areas such as employment law, family law, and some areas of property law, all of which have lower average salaries than many other male-dominated areas of law, such as M&A, banking and finance, and commercial litigation. This may play a role in the statistics as a whole but does not change the fact that there is a gender wage gap within the legal profession.

There are Organizations That Specifically Support Female Lawyers

If there is one thing that is definitely helping women in their fight for equal pay within the legal community, it is the number of organizations that are specifically focused on furthering women in the law. Two organizations of note are the National Association of Women Lawyers and Ms. JD. Both of these organizations regularly address the issues and challenges involved in being a female lawyer, and both have programs that are meant to help women in the law succeed. Hopefully, this will help close the gender wage gap within the legal profession in the future and help women continue to advance to higher-status, higher-paid positions within law firms in the United States.

Should You Move to a Different Professional Environment to Avoid the Gender Wage Gap in the Legal Profession?

Unfortunately, the wage gap isn’t any better in other industries, so if you have a law degree and are thinking of switching to another field, don’t expect a big improvement. In fact, some industries have it even worse, and there isn’t a single industry where women make more money. Consider these other concerns with the gender wage gap before you take the leap and leave the legal field.

Marriage and Children are Great for Men’s Careers, but Not for Women’s

When men get married and have children, they are seen as stable and reliable—how could they not be, in the gendered standards of the present day? Because of their perceived reliability and stability, husbands and fathers in the workplace are more likely to be given pay raises and promotions. The opposite is true for women with children, married or unmarried. When a woman starts a family, she is more likely to be seen as unreliable, since “good mothers” cannot put their careers before their families. It is this kind of career double standard that is contributing to the overall average wage gap in the United States.

Executive Positions See Larger Wage Gaps

While there are some industries and companies where executives are under controlled compensation factors, there are many companies where the wages of the executives are not controlled in any way. In the controlled compensation situations, the wage gap between female and male executives is 6.1 percent. However, in the more common situations where compensation is not controlled, males make as much as 32.8 percent more than female executives. That is a striking difference and is not generally closed by work or educational experience.

Some Industries Have Wage Gaps Worse than the National Average

The industries that have consistently larger pay gaps between men and women are also (for the most part) the industries that are historically dominated by men. This includes such lines of work as mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction. When experience and degree level are taken into account, the pay gap in these industries is around 5.4 percent. However, when those factors are not accounted for, the pay gap is closer to 25 percent. In fact, the mining, oil, and gas industry has the largest controlled industry pay gap, and it doesn’t seem like it will be closing anytime soon.

Women 'Peak' Earlier

In this case, peaking earlier is to a woman’s disadvantage. A recent study has found that men often continue earning raises and getting promotions until they are in their mid-50s, whereas women stop seeing pay increases between the ages of 35 and 40. Not only that, but the median salaries for those ages are $75,000 for men and $49,000 for women—that is a big difference when it comes to earning the maximum salary possible.​

Women of Color Have It Worst

Not only is there a pay gap between women of color and men of color, but there is also a pay gap between women of color and white women. This means that, statistically, women of color earn the lowest wages of anyone in the workforce.​

As far as industries go, legal professions still have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to closing the gender wage gap, especially in terms of partners and executives. However, there is good news on the horizon. There are many people and organizations fighting for equal pay for women, both in the legal realm and in general. The wage gap is a very hot-button topic at the moment, and it is sure to continue to be so until the gap starts to close on the national level. For the time being, women lawyers, keep working hard! Hopefully, it will eventually all pay off. If not, you can always use your legal skills to file a lawsuit and fight unfair pay that way!