Undeniable Gender Bias in the Legal Professions
International Women’s Day is a global day to take a look at the social, economic, cultural, and political accomplishments of women worldwide, while also is a perfect time to call for action to increase gender diversity and equity in the legal profession.
As we observe International Women’s Day, it’s important to remind ourselves of why gender diversity in the legal profession is essential for democratic societies. Diversity in sex, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation in the legal profession indicates to society that their legal system is democratic, fair, and equitable, but also that different groups of the community are represented and heard.
Gender Gap in the Legal profession
Despite the fact that the number of women in the legal profession has increased significantly over the past 30 years, evidence shows that women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions. Today there are more women in law school than ever before, but men still lead when it comes to private practice, making up about two-thirds of attorneys in this sector of the legal profession.
Data released for 2019 show that women are nearly fifty percent of associates at law firms throughout the United States. However, they are only 22.3% of partners and nineteen percent of equity partners.
This situation is not only in the US around the globe. The senior levels of law firms reflect the reality of the legal profession, where the managing positions are predominantly occupied by men. Hence, as we strive to reach the goal of gender equality in the legal profession, the situation in practice is not on a satisfactory level.
The percentage of women drops by over half between associate and equity partner positions in law firms worldwide. Gender bias can be analyzed here.
A survey made by the Solicitors Regulation Authority in 2021 regarding the diversity in law firms shows a slow increase in diversity among all lawyers since the last survey in 2019. This shows a slight decrease across almost all categories, which is encouraging. According to the Survey: Women make up 52% of lawyers in law firms, up from 51% in 2019. Men made up 46% of lawyers, down from 47% in 2019, and 0.1% preferred another description (no change since 2019). Government employment figures for 2019 show that women made up 48% of the workforce in England, Scotland and Wales.
Gender Wage Gap in the Legal Profession
The legal profession has some of the biggest gaps in salary between male and female employees that are not due to their level of education or years of experience, with several positions having as much as 38.6 percent disparity levels.
The gender wage gap persists across all levels of attorneys, from associates to equity partners. Women earn 90 to 94 percent of what men in the same position make. Men continue to dominate the top earner spots.
Ninety-seven percent of firms report their top earner is a man, and nearly 70 percent of firms have one or no women in their top 10 earners. The payment gap continues even though women tend to charge more accounts than men. Very often, women lawyers are billed at lower rates than men.
Although women make up about one-quarter of the general counsel positions at Fortune 500 companies, they are paid less than men. Of these positions, men earned 17.5 percent more than their women counterparts, with men having an average salary that was 6.3 percent higher and bonuses 31% higher than women.
Further data shows that the higher the compensation level, the greater the pay increase favored men. Furthermore, the gender pay gap of equity partners has increased. Even if women make it to this top level, they still earn less than male equity partners.
According to the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2022 report, approximately 2.4 billion women of working age are not afforded equal economic opportunity, and 178 countries maintain legal barriers that prevent their full economic participation. In 86 countries, women face some form of job restriction, and 95 countries do not guarantee equal pay for equal work.
Globally, women still have only three-quarters of the legal rights afforded to men an aggregate score of 76.5 out of a possible 100, which denotes complete legal parity.
Common barriers that women face in their legal career
Although the formal barriers hindering the success of women in large firms have been eliminated, many women continue to combat unspoken bias and unequal treatment once inside these firms.
Some women complain that once they can see positions they wish to achieve, they eventually encounter a “glass ceiling.” As a result of the glass ceiling, women continue to face sex-based prejudice, shortening their chances for success within the legal field, thereby limiting opportunities to obtain a position within the legal profession. The glass ceiling also restrains many female attorneys from receiving equal pay for performing the same work as their male colleagues.
Decreasing female attorneys maintains the glass ceiling effect by reducing the number of qualified female attorneys, shrinking the pool of women available for partner positions.
Work-Life balance issues
Another obstacle women face in their legal careers is the lack of support for families in the workplace. This lack of support especially affects women, who continue to hold primary responsibility for family care.
Because women have only considerably increased their presence within the legal profession during the last thirty years, many reports that, unlike their male colleges, they must go out of their way to prove their competence in the workplace. This is particularly true of working mothers in that they may be seen as caring for their family rather than their careers, their priority.
All lawyers struggle with work-life balance issues, but these problems disproportionately affect women and limit their chances for success within the legal field. Lawyers are known for working excessive hours and for having little flexibility in their schedules therefore many women face tremendous issues trying to balance work and family life. Even though many law firms advertise that they allow part-time work, some women report a belief that a reduction in hours would limit their possibilities for progress. Furthermore, women may become discouraged as chances for making partners appear to fade and may begin to withdraw from partnership tracks at the same time that men are focusing on their careers.
Perhaps it is for this reason that female lawyers anticipate leaving their employers three years earlier than most men, long before being considered for high positions within their law firms.
Hence, this may also explain why more women obtain legal employment where time constraints and travel are more compatible with family needs, such as in the public sector, government agencies, or part-time positions.
Stereotypes are one of the considerable barriers that women face during their legal careers. Thus, the legal profession has traditionally been gendered masculine, the assumption is often made that women lack the aggressiveness and tenacity to make good lawyers.
This presumption not only neglects the fact that the legal profession was shaped by men during a time when women were simply not allowed to practice law and consequently ignores the possibility that there are other ways in which an understanding and application of the law might be facilitated, but also denies the reality that women do possess these “masculine” mentality. Other stereotypes about women that can influence decisions about whether they should be selected for important jobs include that they are not dedicated enough to their jobs and that they are too emotional, and therefore not rational.
Lack of networking and mentorship
The lack of networking available to women delivers to prevents them from meeting people in positions of power. Many women are denied access to informal networks that exist within organizations.
This, in turn, contributes to a lack of spotlight within the legal community at large, obstructing women’s chances of their career progress. It is often the informal interaction with people in positions of power that helps in developing contacts and exchanging information, which can be crucial assets in career development.
In addition to experiencing fewer networking opportunities, women are often denied access to male-oriented mentoring activities, which further excludes women’s rise to positions of status and power within the field.
When there is no mentoring system in place, either formal or informal, women may experience a difficult time overcoming the many obstacles in their way. Moreover, without mentoring, many women may be excluded from the social events that would easily strengthen their careers.
The lack of available mentors may also affect the essence of their work, as women may not be provided equal opportunities to work on high-visibility assignments.
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Over the past few decades, notable attention has been devoted to addressing ongoing and extensive gender inequality in the legal profession. The issue has not largely been viewed as one central to the profession, and the hypocrisy that arises from the devotion to the preservation of rights and equality while maintaining a sexist status quo has not been illuminated.
While it is true that some progress has been made in the determination of barriers and the proclamation of solutions, the actually gendered dynamics persist. Regardless of the merits and the talent of so many female legal professionals, they still don’t reach the most senior positions across the legal sector mainly due to discriminatory obstacles placed in their paths. Furthermore, this directly clashes with the principles defended by the legal profession. The legal sector cannot afford this contradiction and should lead by example. With the advance of raising general awareness around gender discrimination and stereotypes, it is time for increased action.
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