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Harvard Study: Wage Gap for Women Worsened Over 30 Years

May 13, 2015, 11:55 AM

It’s well-known that women in nearly every sector earn less than their male peers, but in the legal profession the gap appears to actually have grown starting in 1975.

That news comes froman empirical studyconducted by Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, which Big Law Business wrote about earlier .

It surveyed Harvard Law School alumni from four separate graduating classes — 1975, 1985, 1995 and 2000 — and drew on other research to put forward a number of arresting findings, including thatwomen report working more hours than men even as they remain underrepresented in leadership positions.

In terms of compensation for entry level position, there was gender parity for the classes of 1975 and 1985, but a gulf between the genders emerged for the class of 1995; and it grew dramatically with the class of 2000, when men reported earning an average of $115,000 in the first job out of law school compared to an average of $85,000 for women.

The study resists drawing any definitive conclusions about what caused this chasm. The authors wrote, “Explaining these persistent gender disparities in income, however, has proven to be much more difficult than simply identifying them.”

[Image “Entry level Salaries.” (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Entry-level-job-growth.png)]

This gap is partially explained by the fact that more women than men in the latter two classes, 1995 and 2000, reported entering the public sector, which is defined as government, public interest organizations, NGOs, and educational institutions (excluding clerkships).

Still, the report notes, “These differences, however, are not large enough to explain this disparity fully. Instead, we suspect (although we cannot prove) that women in our sample were less likely to join the largest and most prestigious law firms — firms often located in New York City and that tend to pay the highest starting salaries (often accompanied by bonuses)—than their male peers.”

It does not contain data for any of the more recent graduating classes.

But the salary gap looks even more pronounced when attorneys reported their 2007 income. Again, however, the authors reach limited conclusions about what is driving the disparity between genders.

[Image “HLS Career Study Median Income Current” (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/HLS-Career-Study-Median-Income-Current.png)]

By 2007, the gap in compensation had grown wider between the genders for each of the four HLS graduating classes participating in the survey. The largest gap occurs for the class of 1995— women on average earned only 38 percent of the 2007 income that their male counterparts took home.

“The most important explanatory factor appears to be the fact that men are far more likely than women to work in business (not practicing law), particularly in more recent [classes], and that when they do, they earn total compensation that is far in excess of even their highly paid law firm peers,” the report’s authors wrote.

According to the study, authored byDavid Wilkins, the Lester Kissel Professor of Law at HLS , and also Bryon Fong, assistant research director at HLS’s Center on the Legal Profession, and Ronit Dinovitzer, an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto, men from the class of 1995 whose incomes fell in the 75 percentile of those that participated in the survey, made in excess of $1.625 million. Since women in that class were less likely to work in the business sector than their male classmates, they were less likely to earn such outsized compensation, the report notes.

To see how the compensation gap increased for each class, Big Law Business used the data in the two charts above to create a new chart, below. For each of the four classes, it shows the size of the compensation gap during the entry level positions’ phase, adjacent to the size of the gap in 2007.

The chart uses negative numbers to show when women earned less than their male counterparts. For instance, in the class of 1975, women initially earned on average $2,000 more than men, but their 2007 median incomes were reported as $40,000 less than men. The chart shows $40,000 as a negative number.

[Image “Big Law Business Chart of Gender Gap” (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Big-Law-Business-Chart-of-Gender-Gap.png)]

Unfortunately, the survey does not extend into the present and the data stops with the class of 2000.

Still, the authors do not sound an optimistic note about what will happen to this compensation gap.

They wrote, “In the coming years, if male HLS graduates continue to migrate into the business (not practicing law) sector in greater numbers than their female peers — a distinct possibility, given ... the common perception that the financial sector is even less welcoming and diverse than the legal profession— than [sic] it is quite likely that significant gender gaps in the income levels of HLS graduates will persist even if law firms and other legal employers remedy the many problems that still make it difficult for women to achieve financial parity in the context of practicing law.”

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