Is Ambition a Dirty Word? Closing the Gender Pay Gap

October 19, 2017


Legal Interest


Jacqui Jubb


A Sony email hack revealed that Jennifer Lawrence had been paid less than her male co-stars, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Christian Bale, earning 7% of the profits along with her female co-star, Amy Adams, rather than 9% like the rest of the lads. In truth, I doubt it was actually the gender pay gap that made the news but rather that the disparity had been so explicitly enunciated via a “points” system in the Sony executive email trail.

But whether or not you find it reassuring that a wealthy Hollywood starlet suffers from the same kind of discrimination as your typical female earner is besides the point: she works hard for her money and deserves the same as her male counterparts, right?


According to the Australian Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), as at September 2014, an Australian woman has to work an extra 66 days in one year to bridge the 18.2% pay gap between men and women in this country. The picture is similar in the US where a post last week on The Washington Post revealed...

Women could buy two houses, 14 cars, or 37 years of family meals, if it weren’t for the gender pay gap.     

Is it time we started throwing rocks at that glass ceiling? Why is that ceiling still reinforced with bulletproof glass and what will it take to effect real change? Here’s a little look at the reasons for power and pay differences in the profession and the steps we can take to turn it around.

Is it time we started throwing rocks at that glass ceiling? Why is that ceiling still reinforced with bulletproof glass and what will it take to effect real change? Here’s a little look at the reasons for power and pay differences in the profession and the steps we can take to turn it around.

Less pay, less power

Unfortunately, the stats in the legal profession are a whole lot worse than the nationwide stats.

In November 2014, the Australian legal profession’s gender pay gap hit almost 36 per cent, more than 10 per cent higher than the private sector average, according to WGEA. Further, a 2014 InfoTrack/Janders Dean Survey found that parental leave was a “kiss of death” for women in law firms and 85% of respondents said that the Australian legal industry needed to be more flexible in work practices, tech­nology and billing.

Speaking with Lawyers Weekly in November 2014, WGEA director, Helen Conway, said that the pay disparity between men and women was the most concerning result for the legal profession. Women in the law basically earn much less than men and this has a significant impact on their long-term financial security.

In the UK, the position is similar. In January 2013, the New Law Journal reported that female lawyers are paid a staggering £50,000 less per year on average than their male counterparts. Ireland has made history by becoming the first country to have more female solicitors than male. While this is a great step the pay gap still exists.

And it’s not just salaries that suffer – it’s the absence of women in senior roles (like firm Partner) that is also of concern, a global situation that the likes of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook CEO, and Hillary Clinton have spoken about often.

“Why are we one of only a few countries left in the world that don’t provide paid family leave?” Clinton said at a rally earlier this month in Pennsylvania. “Why is it women that still get paid less than men for doing the same work?” she asked at event in Michigan a few days later.

Award-winning actress, Patricia Arquette, jumped on board at the recent Oscars ceremony with an impassioned plea to rapturous applause from the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Meryl Streep:

“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s time to have wage equality once and for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

So why do female lawyers earn less money and have less power? Why are they grossly underrepresented at the top?

Why the Gap?

As Nareen Young, CEO of the Diversity Council, points out, part of the difficulty in closing the gap is that its causes are complex. Nareen has said that at the very heart of the pay equity problem is the definition of merit. The truth is that women's work has never been seen as meritorious or valuable as men's work and this attitude needs to change.

In addition to the issue of merit, it seems women may not always be their own best advocates in law firms. Speaking with the Australian Financial Review, Sue Kench, Managing Partner of King & Wood Mallesons, said “female lawyers tended to underrate their ability when it came to remuneration discussions”.

According to WGEA, the general gender pay gap is influenced by a number of interrelated work, family and societal factors, including stereotypes about the work women and men ‘should’ do, and the way women and men ‘should’ engage in the workforce. Other factors include lack of work flexibility, difficulty in accessing senior roles due to women’s unpaid caring responsibilities, and discrimination, to name a few.

It seems the power and pay differences exist because of a number of cultural and historical reasons. Part of the problem is the way we view professional, ambitious women and what society does to help (or not help) them return to work and what they pay them once they arrive.

In a fabulous interview with Lee Sales in the Saturday Paper, Annabel Crabb, renowned political journalist, mother of three and author of the Wife Drought, a book in which explores the pressures on women who want to combine career and family, discovered that 76% of working men have a spouse who is either not employed at all or employed part-time and only 16% of fulltime working Mums had a spouse who is working less in the workplace and more at home.

All of this, of course, means that women are working just as hard with much less help which may also mean they’re less inclined to reach for career advancement or demand a salary hike. And if they do, they’re seen as overly ambitious and/or neglectful of their family duties. As Lee Sales said, “Ambition can be a dirty word for women.”

So what impact does this workplace disparity have on female lawyers and working women?

Mind the Gap

Well, a huge one, is the simple answer.

The groundbreaking AMP NATSEM report She Works Hard for the Money: Australian Women & the Gender Divide reported that the gender pay gap over a lifetime would result in an average earnings deficit of nearly $1 million and an even higher $1.5 million for those with university degrees. 1 million?!! That’s almost enough for a tiny 1 bedroom apartment in Sydney’s beachside Bondi or a fancy Main Beach pad with water views. Or numerous trips to Europe in the golden years when the kids have flown the coop.

And as Nareen Young has observed, the deficit not only hits our back pockets, it affects our retirement too. Figures from the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia show that women's average super balances are 43 per cent less than men's.

How do we lessen this gap and its impact?

The path to equality

The causes of the disparities are complex and there is no quick fix.

It is not all doom and gloom though - most law firms have a decent record with paid parental leave and new technologies have provided excellent opportunities for working parents and women but the industry can obviously do more on the pay front.

WGEA Director, Conway, recommends that law firms have gender strategies in their overall organisational strategy. Other measures include greater pay transparency (almost non-existent in the private sector), bold leadership, flexible working practices and a reevaluation of the value we place on certain roles in our society, so that at-home parenting is highly valued, men aren’t forced to play the breadwinner all the time and women aren’t bowing out of working life if they don’t really need to (unless they choose to).

The end dame: the greater good

And if all of that is not enough to convince us to act now (and it should be), let’s look at the bigger picture. Gender equality is not just good for female lawyers and the profession, it’s good for the economy.

Goldman Sachs JB Were's landmark report, Australia’s Hidden Resource: The Economic Case for Increasing Female Participation, estimated that closing the gap between male and female employment would boost Australia's GDP by 11 per cent.

KPMG report commissioned by the DCA also found that closing the gap would be beneficial for industry, resulting in more competitiveness and economic output with workers better matched to their capabilities, reduced costs through lower staff turnover and greater retention of skilled and knowledgeable staff.

So it’s great for our female lawyers. Great for our wives, sisters, daughters. Our fathers, sons and husbands. And great for the country’s bottom line too.

Take that, Sony. Do we need any more reasons to hurl rocks at that ceiling?

Share your thoughts on gender equality in the comments below.

Jacqui Jubb

Jacqui Jubb is a senior lawyer and writer for the Smith's Lawyers blog on legal interest and workers rights topics.

Jacqui Jubb is a senior lawyer and writer for the Smith's Lawyers blog on legal interest and workers rights topics.