The gender pay gap and the reluctance to ‘own’ it

Whichever variation of the gender pay gap you’ve heard of – industry gaps, role gaps, or the worrying national averages – and whichever statistic you’ve been quoted, there’s no escaping that many women are being paid less than their male counterparts.

While it has been a topic of discussion for a long time, the legal profession’s gender pay gap is narrowing at a snail’s pace, and there appears to be a reluctance to ‘own’ the problem and be part of the solution.

Have we created an ‘illusion of progression’?

McCullough Robertson Managing Partner Kristen Podagiel reflected on a recent managing partners’ lunch where she raised the topic of the gender pay gap.

“I put forward a discussion point around the gender pay gap that still exists within the legal industry, mentioned some of the sticky issues we’re dealing with, and some of the initiatives we’re trialling,” Ms Podagiel said.

“Of the 20 firms represented at that lunch, 17 said they did not have a gender pay gap problem.

“We know from industry statistics that most likely every one of the firms in that room has a pay gap issue. Now they either don’t understand the data or they’re intentionally sticking their heads in the sand,” she said.

Sometimes when we discuss an issue over an extended period, regardless of the topic’s severity or importance, some impact can be lost. While some become immune to the detail, others fall victim to the ‘illusion of progression’ – the feeling that we’ve been talking about something for so long that we must have made some headway by now.

The current state of play

The Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) has been collecting data on gender equality factors for over five years, and the findings are still alarming. The latest data from WGEA identifies that the legal services sector has an average gender pay gap of 26.2 per cent, and while this has narrowed from 35.6 per cent in 2014, there is still a long way to go to reach pay parity.

While these figures are industry averages and reflect, to some extent, the trend of women occupying a larger proportion of junior and administrative roles in professional services, there still remains a discrepancy when looking at role-specific data. In the legal profession, male Senior Managers are paid on average 9.1 per cent more than female Senior Managers, and the gap widens for Executive and General Managers – with men earning on average 15.1 per cent more than their female counterparts.[1]

Taking a targeted approach

While the gender pay gap is influenced by an interrelated web of work, family and societal factors, there remains a significant role for organisations to play in ensuring their structures, processes and policies address the factors which influence the gender pay gap.

McCullough Robertson HR Director Louise Ferris noted the targeted approach her organisation is taking to reduce pay inequality.

“While we as an organisation cannot address all the factors influencing the gender pay gap, WGEA has told us that there are three ‘peak points’ during a person’s career where the gender pay gap may be accelerated: at times of recruitment, during salary reviews and after periods of parental leave,” Ms Ferris said.

“So, we have decided to take a strategic approach and focus our efforts on these three areas.

“We have made the decision to contribute additional superannuation to people returning to work after parental leave, introduce twice-yearly systemised salary and bonus reviews, and what I’m really proud of is that we have designed and introduced a new recruiting practice called ‘black boxing’.

“While many organisations are trialling recruitment practices like the use of ‘blind CVs’ and creating more gender-neutral role descriptions, we have been trialling a process called ‘black boxing’ where we assess salary expectation information separately from the applicants themselves.

“When we receive applications, one decision maker (or group of decision makers) reviews the salary expectation information in isolation and recommends a standard salary bracket for the role. Another decision maker (or group of decision makers) then conducts the interviews and recommends the most suitable person against the role description.

“Keeping the salary discussion separate from the applicant suitability discussion aims to reduce biases, correct previously embedded pay inequalities and remove the strength of an individual’s salary negotiation skills from the equation. The focus is simply on getting the best person for the role,” Ms Ferris said.

Almost a year on from implementing the ‘black boxing’ process, Ms Ferris noted the effects are starting to be seen across the organisation.

“We’re beginning to notice fewer salary corrections at bi-annual reviews, as unequal salaries are being corrected at the point of recruitment. It has also been a good education exercise for our lawyers and other staff who have been involved in the hiring process as we continue to better understand how structural organisational changes can improve diversity,” Ms Ferris said.

“While we don’t expect any process to be perfect, to work for every organisation, or to solve the gender pay gap overnight, it’s only through firms taking ownership of the issue and showing a willingness to take a different approach, that we can maintain momentum for the gender pay gap movement, keep discussion fresh and continue to champion diversity in our workplaces.”