Most female lawyers (84%) believe that gender pay equality will not be achieved until after they retire and that firms’ commitment is more about headlines than real change.
The report for the Next 100 Years campaign also found that almost two-thirds (62%) said that fixing the gender pay gap was not a priority for senior management in their law firm.
This contrasts with the 92% of lawyers who said the gender pay gap was a concern for them.
Of those who believed they would not see pay equality during their careers, a majority (54%) thought it would come with the “next generation”, while 29% said it would take another 100 years.
The research by pay tracking specialists Gapsquare, part of online HR service XpertHR, included a survey of 229 female legal professionals, mainly lawyers, and a study of data from 127 law firms.
Researchers said hourly pay rates provided by law firms under the statutory gender pay reporting guidelines for 2022 showed a median gender pay gap of 25.4% – a figure “largely unchanged” since 2017, when mandatory reporting first came into effect.
“If this trend continues, the gender pay gap in the legal profession will never close.”
Two-thirds of female lawyers agreed that the gender gap was an “urgent issue for women’s equality in the legal profession”.
Asked about action taken by law firms to address the gender pay gap, three-quarters said firms were improving flexible working policies, following by transparent career progression and promotion (31%), and an improved recruitment policy (30%).
Researchers said the findings fell “far short of the significant change that is required to close the pay gap”; improved flexible working opportunities was “a peripheral move that, while welcome, is unlikely to impact pay disparities”.
Some respondents reported that while senior management might appear willing to address the pay gap and related issues, “their actions are often designed more to generate positive press than to resolve the actual issue”.
Researchers recommended that law firms improve transparency of career paths and pay grades, “allowing employees to talk about pay between themselves”, and secure the commitment of senior managers to reducing the gender pay gap.
“This means changing attitudes – management must recognise that the pay gap exists and that it is incumbent on them to address it.”
Firms should focus on performance, not years of experience, when determining pay and promotion.
“Focusing on service time disproportionately impacts women, who often take maternity leave and then return to work part-time to allow them more time to raise their family. Instead, decisions on pay and promotion must be informed by a person’s ability to do the job.”
There should also be a “more balanced distribution of work”. Comments from respondents “suggest that law firms often assign men to the highest paying practice areas”, further exacerbating the pay gap.
“To resolve this, managers must assign work more evenly, eschewing the attitude that ‘family law’ is women’s work, for example, or that complex fraud cases can only be handled by men.”
Dana Denis-Smith, founder of Next 100 Years, said: “The lack of faith in law firm leadership’s willingness to tackle the gender pay gap is not only alarming for the immediate and future careers of women in the industry, but also for the future of the industry itself.
“With inclusivity playing an increasingly large role in employee retention, such sentiments, particularly amongst the younger generation, have the potential to impact future employee turnover in the legal sector.”
Dr Zara Nanu, CEO of Gapsquare, added: “The gender pay gap goes beyond a renumeration issue. Businesses need to ensure women receive better opportunities and start tackling gender inequality from new angles.
“This restructuring of workplaces is about making voices heard, talent seen and reconsidering what leaders look like.”