Decades of studies have demonstrated that male law firm partners earn considerably more than their female colleagues. Even when data is controlled for such variables as billable hours, origination, seniority, and law firm size, the gender gap persists. And yet women have been 40-50% of law school students for decades. This is not a pipeline problem; this is a discrimination problem.
The Gender Equity Task Force of the American Bar Association (of which I am a member) was created to recommend ways to eliminate gender bias in the legal profession, with a particular focus on the disparity in compensation between men and women partners. This month, we releasedseveral publications to help eliminate this gap, including one that is directed to law firm leaders,Closing the Gap: A Road Map for Achieving Gender Pay Equity in Law Firm Partner Compensation, of which I was the principal author.
As the report details, the roots of pay inequity run deep. The easy answer — that women earn less on a comparative basis because of the impact of their family responsibilities — is simply wrong. Women earn less because of the complex interplay between compensation system factors and the effects of unconscious bias in that process.
Moreover, the axiom that "compensation drives behavior" permeates the ways in which partners seek credit for business generation, a key factor in most law firm compensation systems. Often, that behavior includes active efforts to exclude their colleagues from sharing in that credit. Compensation committees are generally reluctant to use their authority as a tool to combat this problem and create a more level playing field. This allows unconscious biases to thrive.
Closing the Gap proposes recommendations that can be incorporated into any existing compensation system to eliminate the barriers that stand in the way of equal pay for female partners. Moreover, adopting these measures would not just help women — it would result in a fairer and more transparent compensation process for all. Some of these recommendations include:
Law firms will better survive the difficult economic climate by ensuring a culture where economic growth and inclusive opportunities are linked through engaged leadership and transparent systems. Then we will see the equal opportunities that women have long sought in the profession.
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