The Australian reported today that the New South Wales Law Society would urge law firms to sign up to a charter for advancing women in the legal profession, including a pledge to achieve equal pay for male and female graduates, within 12 months.
On the basis that differentiating pay based on gender (or race, or age etc) is unlawful, why is such a pledge needed? Why doesn’t the law society say: if a law firm is not currently paying staff equally for equal work, it will be prosecuted. I guess pledges and charters seem so much less in your face. But that is why I suspect that they will not work.
No doubt this most recent charter is informed by the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (‘NARS’) of 2014. The NARS report, like so many reports before it, identified systemic gender discrimination and sexual harassment within the legal profession. Its suggested solutions centered around mentoring of women and implementing flexible work policies etc. Indeed exactly the sort of thing the NSW charter seems to be doing.
While I do not doubt the bona fides of the organisations and people involved in rolling this out, I am skeptical of the potential for change through these types of strategies. Generally, this is because of the deeply entrenched, regressive nature of Australian culture and public discourse around diversity, including gender diversity. The effect of this culture – the source of the inequality – is that compulsory professional development in ‘unconscious bias’ is more than likely to be simply a tick-a-box solution. (I hope that I am wrong…) Those interested in or affected by such training are those already likely to have sufficient insight into the issue. (I’ve observed this with cultural competency training sessions. I’m always surprised at the people who show up. They are the ones who seem to me to be culturally competent. Others, when invited, tell me they do not need it.)
Here are a few ideas for the legal profession, as an alternative to making a pledge, or wearing a ribbon, or setting up a committee to write a policy so that your organisation can win a prize. (This latter example is a true story. ‘[Our organisation] is now going to aim for gender equality with the goal of winning a prize in 2 years’ time. We will do this by setting up a committee and writing more policies.’ Smell that sweet justice, ladeez.)
- Apply the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’. Today. Just take a quick squiz at the payroll, locate the differences, and up the pay of those lagging behind.
- Don’t take a pledge to pay equally in the future, proclaim today that your organisation is already paying equally. Shame the rest of them.
- Stop making jokes about PMT, having sex, mothers-in-law, and other well-trodden sexist topics. With apologies to Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, ‘because it’s 2016’.
- Make up for the (average) 17% gender pay gap by paying women in your organisation 17% extra superannuation. You might not get a prize, but you will contribute to solving the problem of feminised poverty amongst the over-55 set.
- Walk around the office today and tell all people with caring responsibilities to log off at 5pm, or earlier if they need to collect kids.
- Stop not promoting women to partner. Seriously. Just stop it.
- Stop having golf days and corporate boxes at the football for client bonding. Ring up today, and give the tickets back. Do something else – you could even ask your colleagues, including women, what they would like to do to promote client relations.
- Brief a woman barrister. Today. You know you can.
- Stop mansplaining why there are so few women in the hierarchy of the legal profession. We already know all your arguments. They don’t wash.
Instead of more pledges, more policies, the legal profession should just get on with the job of bringing women into the fold.