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Balancing the Scales: A Look at Gender Bias in the Legal Industry

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Gender bias in the workplace is a fact. We are seeing headlines addressing the gender and racial wage gap because it exists in all industries, although the percentages vary. 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 this gap has been on the minds of many. 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.

The issue turned up again 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, limiting employees’ ability to sue for arguably inequitable pay decisions. However, after all of the work and the policies passed, women are still only earning 80 cents to the man’s dollar, on average. With all the effort that goes into passing the bar exam, what does the gender wage gap look like for women in the legal profession?

The gender wage gap in the legal industry is astonishing.

According to a study published on PayScale, the legal industry has one of the highest wage gaps not influenced by education or experience, as high as 38.6 percent. While this gap is outrageous at first glance and may appear to 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. This statistic also includes legal support workers, paralegals, and secretaries, which slightly skew the statistics because these lower-status jobs are more likely to be filled by women.

Women in the legal industry work harder for less pay

Sky Analytics released a report showing women at law firms work more hours and have more years of experience, but earn less money than their male counterparts. Largely in part because they are billed at 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 legal industry is one of the few professions that place a high premium on employees working at certain times. Therefore, women who may take time off or desire a flexible work schedule to care for their children are often penalized. Working irregular hours is often frowned upon in this industry.

Bias goes beyond pay

According to a recent survey of 2,827 lawyers, female lawyers, and especially women of color, are more likely than their male counterparts to be interrupted, mistaken for non-lawyers, do more office housework, and to have less access to prime job assignments. In fact, female lawyers of color were eight times more likely than white men to report that they had been mistaken for custodial staff, administrative staff, or court personnel, with 57% reporting mistaken identity.

Women also have to walk a tightrope when it comes to assertiveness. While it is often rewarded in this industry, if they are too assertive, then they are criticized for not behaving in a proper fashion. If they are not assertive enough, then they are often seen as lacking the confidence needed to succeed.

Women have made exceptional progress in the legal industry since they were allowed to learn and practice law. Overcoming gender discrimination is a major concern. Each day women have to face considerable obstacles such a sexual harassment, work-life balance, and wage-gap to be able to pursue a successful career as a lawyer. Luckily, the incorporation of women’s initiative programs and unconscious bias training is helping women build successful careers in their industry. Consider mentorship programs, like the Model Mentoring Program, through The Inns of Court, which includes resources that members can use in a section of its website devoted to mentoring, empower women in the legal industry to build each other up.

We are also seeing more programs such as the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations (NCWBA) and the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession recently sponsored a program called “Why GOOD Guys—Guys Overcoming Obstacles to Diversity—Are So Important.”  The GOOD Guys program started out of a desire to engage all lawyers, especially men, in efforts to increase gender diversity in the legal profession. Additionally, the NCWBA has developed the GOOD Guys Toolkit that will assist lawyers in doing their own GOOD Guys events.

Resources abound for women in legal to push past barriers. If nothing else, keep honing your legal prowess to build a powerful suit to abolish gender bias in the workplace!

Read more on gender equality and the legal industry or visit our website to learn more about developing strategies to advance women at your firm.