The wages of professional inequality

As a solicitor, I am always deeply concerned that even in what I consider to be an enlightened and just profession there remains evidence of deep-seated discrimination between men and women.

Every female in the profession can probably now recite the statistics released last week by the Law Society – whereas on average a male assistant solicitor earns £24,000, a woman earns only £21,000. At salaried partner level, men earn £37,000 compared with £32,000 for women, while the gap is even worse at equity partner level, men earning £51,000 and women £36,000. This is despite the fact that women make up almost a third of practising solicitors in England and Wales.

These statistics suggest that the picture in the legal profession is worse even than that in occupations traditionally seen to be low-skilled and underpaid. Nationally, women are paid on average, an hourly rate 20 per cent less than men. Female solicitors, it seems, can expect to be paid over a quarter less than male counterparts.

One solicitor who stood up against discrimination is Gillian Wood. A former salaried partner with Harvey Ingram solicitors, Wood, backed by the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1994, received £17,000 in an out-of-court settlement after a claim for equal pay lead to her being unfairly dismissed.

Wood, who qualified as a solicitor in 1981, worked for the Leicester firm as manager of the Personal Injuries department. Before she went on maternity leave the firm brought in a male solicitor who was paid £10,500 more a year than she was. After claiming equal pay, she was dismissed. The company claimed that the male solicitor was paid more because he was more experienced, yet he had only qualified in 1992.

Gillian had to go through what she describes as the "worst year of her life" in order to gain even modest compensation for a such an obvious example of discrimination. This clearly underlines the urgent need for a fundamental review of pay structures within the profession to prevent such cases being brought and to show that solicitors are complying with the law.

General national differences in levels of pay can, in part, be explained by the marked division in the type of work done by men and women and the entrenched attitude that the work women do is of lesser value.

Many excuses are bandied about, such as women requiring time off to have a family, being too emotional and having less commitment. Over the years the preconceptions have become embedded in the way we pay women.

They remain so entrenched that today – 20 years after the Equal Pay legislation was enacted – they still affect something as fundamental as the parity of pay structure for male and female professionals.

The unequivocal lead on this issue taken by Tony Girling, president of the Law Society, is most welcome. There can never be equality of opportunity without equality in pay. On 23 October, the code of practice on Equal Pay was laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the Rt Hon Gillian Shephard MP, for a period of 40 days. This unique code has been developed by the Equal Opportunities Commission and is the first of its kind in any country in Europe.

It provides practical guidance and good practice recommendations to companies, explaining the law and the causes of pay inequality. It also provides a step-by-step process for detecting and addressing pay discrepancies.

Once approved, the code will become admissible as evidence in tribunal proceedings and will set a standard against which equal pay claims can be measured. There is a strong business case for employers to follow an equal pay policy and the draft code received an enthusiastic welcome by a number of business leaders during the consultation period.

The benefits of a transparent and non-discriminatory pay system include not only improved employee morale and motivation, reduced staff turnover and improved productivity, but also the avoidance of costly, disruptive and often damaging and highly public Industrial Tribunal proceedings.

Each revelation of discrimination does further damage to the reputation of the legal profession. Major advances have been made on equality in the business world, and in the public sector, where equality is seen as essential to make the best use of the most important resource: people.

Solicitors should take the lead in implementing the code to demonstrate that we are a modern, effective profession.