Examining Wage Inequality in the Legal Field

Examining Wage Inequality in the Legal Field

Examining Wage Inequality in the Legal Field

The modern feminist movement is punctuated with victories, particularly over the course of the last century, that have led to the gradual approximation of women to shattering the ever-elusive glass ceiling. To acknowledge these victories is to implicitly recognize the inequalities that have filled the gaps of time between them. After all, for there to be a successful Women’s Suffrage Movement, there must at some point have existed the exclusion of women from the polls. To point out systemic injustices is not to be pessimistic; rather, it is to lay the foundation for their rectification. So it was done with the rights to divorce and own property, to vote, and to the various victories earned by women and minorities over time. So it is currently being done, many would argue, with discussions of wage inequality.

Critiques of wage inequality, as well as proposed solutions to it, abound. From peer-reviewed scholarly publications to Twitter, from Doctoral theses to the Opinion sections of major publications worldwide, from presidential campaign speeches to think-pieces, wage inequality across professional fields has been dissected and denounced time and time again. Ironically enough, those who practice law (and, by implication, advocate for the promotion of justice) are not exempted from facing wage inequality. Recent studies conducted by PayScale revealed that 68% more legal professionals are women than men, but only 19% of equity partners- the highest-ranking position in the private sector of law- are women. According to a 2014 study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, a legal wage inequality is perceptible: the average female attorney earned 77 cents to the average male attorney’s dollar. Inequalities remain fairly consistent going up the legal “food chain:” as of 2016, the average woman who was an equity partner in one of the 200 largest law firms in the U.S. earned 80% as much as her male colleagues in comparable positions.

What accounts for this notable gap in earnings between male and female legal professionals? Of course, if the answers were both clear and irrevocable, chances are that income inequality would be eradicated. However, various theories exist as to why women make less than men. The most popular of these are implicit biases against women’s abilities to carry out the same quality of work as men; women’s tendencies to be more accommodating, and thus less avid negotiators for their salary; and, most popularly, the penalties and expectations assigned to women who become pregnant or have children.

Manifestations of the latter explanation are many: It is why successful mothers are criticized for engaging with social or professional obligations soon after giving birth. It is why narratives about female professionals are often centered around their ability to “do it all,” implying that, even in a professional setting, a woman’s identity is defined first by her familial obligations. Because women are more socially prone to taking up responsibilities having to do with their families, they are less likely to bill as many hours as men, upon whom the responsibility of familial engagement is less something to be expected and more something to be praised when chosen to be taken up.

It is ultimately unknown which explanation, or combination of these, truly accounts for the considerable inequality between the income of male and female attorneys (and professionals in general). However, there is no denying that it has no place in any profession, particularly in the practice of law, which is ideologically meant to be geared towards the preservation of justice. The legal field has been shaped, advanced, and unquestionably enriched by the countless brilliant women who have dedicated their careers to it. Wage equality is long overdue. Although time has long been up, hopefully women’s compensation will reflect their invaluable contributions to the professional world, across all fields, sooner rather than later.  


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Maria Barbera

Maria Barbera is the Marketing Director at PracticePanther. After completing two years on the President's List at Columbia University, Maria earned her Bachelor of Science in Political Science, minoring in Legal Philosophy, from Florida State University. While in college, Maria explored campaign analysis from a variety of perspectives. She interned as a Head Features Editor and Analyst at Metro International News in New York, NY. At the same time, she was the Associate Editor for Features at The Eye, Columbia University's weekly arts and culture magazine. She has also worked with Equality Florida as a Field Campaign intern, as well as in the Florida capital as a Legislative Policy Intern for the Office of State Representative Darryl Rouson. Maria aspires to put her fluency in five languages (English, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and Italian) to good use as an international human rights attorney in the future. She is tremendously passionate about the intersection of law and technology and the possibilities it holds for making the world a better place, which makes her tenure at a company as vibrant and innovative as PracticePanther all the more exciting.