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What is National Woman's Equality day?

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One day gender won’t limit opportunities. That’s the aim anyway. But until then days like National Women’s Equality Day are a timely reminder of the progress made in women’s equality and how far there is still to go.

In America most would consider the right to vote a basic and fundamental right. But for women that wasn’t the case until 26 August 1920.

The world is unrecognizable compared to that time in history. That is apart from the fight for women’s equality still raging. Yes, women have the vote, women can work, women can go to university, women can run for President, but when it comes to the details there’s a divide between men and women.

This National Women’s Equality Day, let’s take a moment to explore this divide in one of the most prominent areas, the legal profession.

Cementing a moment in history

National Women’s Equality Day commemorates a moment in history. It’s the date, back in 1920, that the Nineteenth Amendment was certified as part of the US constitution, giving women the right to vote.

Since 1920 women’s rights have continued to evolve, though that doesn’t mean that their struggle for equality is over. It could be said that over the last few years there’s been a step backwards for women’s rights with the pandemic causing more women to leave or deprioritize their careers in favor of caring roles at home.

The world is a different place than it was back in 1920 and the progress women have made since that time should be celebrated, even if there is still work to be done.

That’s the aim of National Women’s Equality Day, to provide an opportunity for reflection, for celebration and for motivation, to continue pushing for change and equality, like our ancestors did before us.

Gender equality in the legal sector

There are more women in law school than men. But at the top levels of the profession only 22% of equity partners are women.

When looking at the statistics it’s clear that progress is being made to level the playing field. Over the years the number of female lawyers has increased, albeit slowly. In 2010 31% of lawyers in the US were women, and that figure now stands at 38%. But in 12 years is that enough progress?

The legal profession is appealing to more women, and with more women studying law than ever before it’s apparent that there aren’t the same barriers to entry as there once were. But between the days of getting lost in studying law and excelling in the profession, women are being lost, turned away or excluded from the profession and to continue the work of National Women’s Equality Day we need to understand why.

Otherwise at an increase of 7% of female lawyers in 12 years, we’re looking at least another 20 years before we reach gender parity.

Supporting women for successful careers in law

The drop off point for a woman’s career in law comes around the same age as an average first time mom. Posing the question, is the legal profession doing enough to support women to have a long, successful career even if they choose to become a mother?

What’s interesting here is the divide in opinions on the topic between men and women. In the 2019 report by the ABA and ALM Intelligence found that 88% of men thought law firms treated women fairly, compared to just 54% of women who agreed.

With a disproportionate number of men in the top roles in law firms this distortion of reality could account for why the number of women at the top remains so low.

What more could be done to retain and promote women in the legal profession?

Long hours, unpredictable schedules, and pay disparities are just some of the reasons cited.

But the reality found by ABA’s In Their Own Words report was that it’s a culmination of “death by a thousand cuts” and not one single factor that’s forcing women to leave the profession. Their recommendations were to:

●      Take steps to ensure there’s a critical mass of women Partners on key committees

●      Increase hiring of female Partners

●      Provide resources to relive family pressures and obligations faced more commonly by women

●      Be flexible to changing practices

It’s this last point that needs to be addressed by firms. Without a willingness to accept there is an issue and to try to find a solution nothing is going to change.

Equal pay for equal work

While there’s a whole host of issues that need addressing, the elephant in the room is pay.

A quote included in ABA’s report summaries the whole issue.

“You give me the hardest problems to solve, but you tell me I am less important with the compensation you give me.”

The issue of the gender pay gap comes down to more than just money in the bank. It’s about feeling valued and appreciated in the same way as men.

It’s clear that there’s still a divide in pay within the legal profession.

The 2021 NAWL Report found a gender pay gap of between 2-5%, increasing with the seniority of the attorney. What will be interesting to follow is the impact of New York’s salary disclosure amendment which requires private sector employers to disclose salary ranges on job postings.

The aim of this amendment is to help level the playing field, making it harder for employers to pay vastly different salaries to different employees. With women statistically more likely to undersell themselves and their experience, this type of legislation should help close that gender pay gap.

On the 26 August this year, take a moment and reflect on how far women’s equality has developed. It’s not perfect, there’s still a very long way to go but we need to celebrate what we have achieved.

We have the vote. We have our education. We have our careers.

In the legal profession women make up 47% of law firm associates, 31% of non-equity partners and 21% of equity partners. Compared to 1920 that’s enormous progress. Celebrating that doesn’t mean we have to accept it. We should be challenging the status quo and pushing for gender parity.

It’s not going to be a quick process, change takes time. But, unlike in 1920, we have the right to push for change now, so we need to use our voices and make ourselves heard.