Goblins, ghouls and the gender pay gap

October 8, 2021

President’s Message By Joseph R. Williams

For most people, October is synonymous with Halloween. Children look forward to dressing up as their favorite character. Parents dread the amount of sugar their kids will consume after trick-or-treat. Everywhere you look there will be scary movies, haunted houses and spooky decorations. However, some of the things that should scare us the most are not sold at the local dollar store.

When you take your daughter or granddaughter shopping for a costume this year, be sure to tell her that it doesn’t matter which costume she picks out, she will still bring home less candy than a boy wearing the same thing and going to all of the same houses. Sound harsh? I agree. Yet it’s 2021 and somehow a gender pay gap continues to plague the American work force.

In 2020, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of both full-time and part-time workers, women earned approximately 84% of what men earned. Based on this estimate, it would take women an extra 42 days of work in a year to equalize the earnings of a man performing the same job. Since we, as lawyers, have an average of 21 open-for-business days to bill each month, some women are working two months for free as compared to their male colleagues.

Women of color are disproportionately affected. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, compared with white men with the same education, Black and Latina women with a bachelor’s degree have the largest gap at 65%, and Black women with advanced degrees earn just 70% or what white men with advanced degrees earn. The difference for Black women without a college education is even greater. Indeed, according to the U.S. Census, on average, Black women were paid 63% of what non-Hispanic white men were paid in 2019. That means it takes the typical Black woman 19 months to be paid what the average white man takes home in 12 months. 

The wage gap is also significant for working mothers. In fact, a mother would have to work until June 4 of a subsequent year to earn an amount identical to that which a similarly-situated father earned by December 31. Too, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, layoffs and a lack of childcare forced many women out of the work force entirely. In February 2021, the women’s labor force participation was 55.8 percent, identical to the rate in 1987. In other words, the pandemic has set women’s participation in the work force back by approximately 34 years.

In the legal profession, the statistics are not any better. In fact, they are worse. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual income for female lawyers is $115,257; for men, it is $150,220. Women lawyers earn approximately 77 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts.

As with many issues that we face, statistics plainly illustrate the problem but do not necessarily lead us to an easy solution. Many economists believe that in order to narrow the gender pay gap the government must facilitate sweeping changes, such as an increase in the minimum wage. Others believe that unions have been shown to equalize pay practices and advocate for unionization of more industries. According to research from the Economic Policy Institute, women working in unions earn an average of 94 cents to the dollar compared to men, higher than the average of non-union female workers.

While it might be true that none of us individually have the power to implement societal change, we can be part of the solution in our law firms, legal departments and businesses. Indeed, many members of our bar have either sole discretion or some amount of shared responsibility in hiring decisions, compensation determinations or policy considerations. So what can we do?

For starters, we can stop basing compensation on a candidate’s own salary history. Employers should consider setting defined salary ranges for positions rather than relying on an applicant’s prior income. If your strategy is to pay an employee slightly more than a past position, this practice can disproportionately impact women because they are more likely to have traditionally made less than male peers. 

A review of your compensation policies should not apply to only new or incoming employees. When it comes to current employees, an employer has an opportunity to fix a pay disparity. Irrespective of the circumstances which led to male and female employees being compensated disproportionately, now is the time to correct it. Not only will you be part of a greater solution, but you will likely have an employee who is motivated by both the pay increase and the recognition.

Employers should also consider fair scheduling practices. Unpredictable scheduling of obligations can make it difficult on employees to manage family responsibilities and coordinate childcare, particularly women who are statistically more likely than men to care for children or dependents. Employers should be open to scheduling accommodations which allow employees to adjust hours in the office or for availability for calls or meetings. For many, these accommodations will not be permanent, but will possibly engender you the loyalty of a talented member of your team who will appreciate being valued during a busy time in life. While the gender pay gap is scary to me, I understand that for some people, including employers who set compensation and company protocol, change is scary. The perceived burden of challenging and reconsidering the way that things have always been done seems overwhelming. But just like when you go through a haunted house, you scream at all the new faces and are startled when you see yourself in one of those distorted mirrors, only to come out and realize that it wasn’t so bad. And if my statistics and attempts at witty Halloween analogies have not convinced you to be a part of the solution to bridge the gender pay gap, just picture the face of your daughter, granddaughter, or, in my case, niece, when you tell her that she will not get as much candy as the boys this Halloween.