The 'unacceptable' reality of pay discrimination

The reaction of Law Society president Tony Girling to the findings of a recent survey on the salaries of women solicitors was uncompromising. The results, he said, left him “saddened and ashamed”.

The survey reveals that, despite paying lip service to political correctness, law firms are reluctant to put their money where their mouths are and have not yet embraced the notion of equality.

Far fewer women than men reach the higher echelons of law firms, and when they do their success is not fairly rewarded.

The survey of 579 firms conducted for the Law Society by Coopers & Lybrand and Scantel, shows that salaries are significantly higher for male solicitors, even after allowing for differences in the size and location of the firms in which they practise and their individual age and experience.

The difference is apparent for newly qualified solicitors. The median salary for female assistant solicitors is £21,000, as opposed to £24,000 for males. And the gap increases with seniority – with female equity partners earning a median salary of £36,000, compared with £51,000 for male equity partners.

Alison Parkinson, chair of the Association of Women Solicitors, welcomed the survey, which she said bore out years of anecdotal evidence.

She said that secrecy over pay, encouraged by the nature of partnerships, should be ended.

“Firms would benefit enormously from publishing their pay scales so that staff know what the rewards for hard work are,” she said.

“They are ignoring the fact that people probably have a good idea that they are earning less and this leads to disaffected staff.”

She added: “We are very pleased to see the Law Society actually coming out and saying this is unacceptable.”

Girling said he hoped the new survey would raise awareness of discrimination and encourage firms to examine their internal pay structure.

Both the Law Society and the Bar have anti-discrimination codes designed to ensure equal treatment for all lawyers but neither branch of the profession can freely say that discrimination does not exist.

At the Bar, there is concern that women barristers tend to be allocated family and criminal work, as opposed to the higher paid commercial work.

Georgina Keane, head of the employment unit at Richards Butler, said such discrimination was endemic throughout employment.

“The survey does not surprise me at all, she said. “When men control a pay structure that is based on merit, with little objective measurement, they tend not to see women as having sufficient merit.”

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) said women earned 80 per cent of men's average hourly wages, despite 20 years of equal pay legislation.

An EOC draft Code of Practice on Equal Pay is due to be laid before Parliament later this week. The code will summarise equal pay legis lation and will be admiss ible evidence in proceedings against the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970.

Of course, the legal profession is not alone in failing to eradicate sex discrimination.

But, as one commentator said, lawyers are supposed to be upholders of the law and so they, of all people, should learn to practise what they preach.