Someday, Equal Pay Day will be a celebration of what should be irrefutable – that women and men receive equal pay for equal work. Instead, April 9, Equal Pay Day 2013, serves as a dismal marker: Women must work approximately all of 2012, plus three months and nine days of 2013—to April 9—to earn what men earned in 2012.
Today, women of all races, education levels and professions stand together to focus attention on a crucial inequity that continues to hold us back for no other reason than discrimination.
Some would say that the wage gap exists because of "differing lifestyle choices" by women and men—not discrimination. But lifestyle choices do not explain why men with the same education and the same experience, working the same hours and logging the same results, are paid more than women.
Unequal compensation for women hurts both women and men—and our economy as a whole.
Women lawyers are not immune. Female lawyers in law firms and corporate offices across the country are all too familiar with this form of discrimination. The latest statistics show that even when hours and business development are equal, compensation is greater for male lawyers. And pay disparities are particularly blatant at the highest levels—at the median, women equity partners in the nation’s 200 largest firms earn 89 percent of what is earned by their male peers.
When top female recruits speak with their feet, law firms and clients feel the impact. Research by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession confirms that pay inequity is often a contributing factor to the disproportionately high rate of attrition of women from law firms.
As a result, firms are increasingly losing well-trained, talented women lawyers who could serve not only in leadership positions, but also as role models and mentors for younger lawyers. Clients are also losing counsel with critical knowledge and experience. This talent drain ultimately affects the bottom line for law firms, with the loss of potential revenue that these women lawyers could have generated.
At the American Bar Association, we are tackling this problem head-on. The ABA’s Task Force for Gender Equity and Commission for Women in the Profession recently introduced the Toolkit for Gender Equity in Partner Compensation, the first in a series of projects that provides specific tools for law firms to use to eliminate pay differences between male and female lawyers.
This toolkit, available online and distributed to local and state bar associations across the country, is designed to inspire conversations about an issue that has for too long remained hidden. The toolkit focuses primarily on abolishing inequities at the partner level because we found this to be the most straightforward approach to closing gender gaps in compensation at all sizes and types of firms.
The ABA toolkit will increase awareness about gender pay inequity, and assist law firm leaders to recognize biases that affect accuracy of compensation decisions. The toolkit encourage law firm leaders to ensure fair and appropriate credit for all components of firm revenue and activity; select diverse members for compensation committees; and train compensation decision-makers on implicit bias.
The ABA also continues to advocate for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. This June will mark the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, a landmark law that guaranteed equal pay regardless of gender. But the promise of the Equal Pay Act has not been fulfilled. The Paycheck Fairness Act makes critical improvements to it while eliminating loopholes that have emerged over the ensuing decades.
For example, the Paycheck Fairness Act will clarify the interpretation of a provision in the Equal Pay Act that prohibits unequal pay for equal work at the same "establishment."
Many courts have narrowly interpreted that requirement to mean that employees must work at the same physical location for the provision to apply. The Paycheck Fairness Act would clarify that, in fact, employees who work for the same employer, do work at the same "establishment." The Paycheck Fairness Act also prohibits employer retaliation when employees inquire about wage practices or disclose their own wages.
Right now, the ABA is launching a campaign called "Click Your Heels" that takes to the streets—the virtual streets. We are asking millions of women and men to send a message that unequal pay is a relic of the past that has no place in the present—or the future. Look for the "red heels" icon on the ABA’s Gender Equity Task Force web page to join us.
As president of the ABA, I have made eliminating gender pay inequity a key priority. Gender-based inequitable pay is an issue that strikes at the very core of who we are as lawyers. Equal compensation is not just about money. It is about respect, fairness, justice and the promise and passion of practicing law.
Laurel G. Bellows is president of the American Bar Association and a principal at The Bellows Law Group in Chicago.