WLF Roundtable on pay equity a resounding success

  • May 05, 2021
  • Grace Cleveland

On April 21, 2021 the Canadian Bar Association’s Women Lawyers Forum hosted its much-anticipated Roundtable on Pay Equity in the Legal Profession, a two-part virtual event that included a webinar followed by focus group sessions. Part of an ongoing national research initiative designed to gather data about Canadian lawyers’ experiences, perceptions, and potential solutions to the gender wage gap in legal workplaces, the Roundtable did not disappoint!

The webinar portion of the event featured incredible and high-profile panelists in a discussion facilitated by journalist Robyn Doolittle of the Globe & Mail. Christina Blacklaws (Principal of Blacklaws Consulting and Past President of the Law Society of England and Wales) provided an overview of the work being done overseas to combat pay inequity with legislation. Destiny Peery (Principal Consultant, The Red Bee Group; Principal Investigator, American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Legal Profession; and member of the National Association of Women Lawyers, USA Chapter) spoke to the investigative work being done by American bar associations and advocacy groups to identity and quantify the problem of pay inequity in the USA. Danielle Bisnar (Partner, Cavalluzzo LLP) discussed her experience as a labour and equality rights lawyer in Ontario and how that has informed her intersectional approach to tackling unequal pay. Karen Jensen (Canada’s federal Pay Equity Commissioner) overviewed the importance of implementing the soon to be in force Pay Equity Act.

The conversation began with an overview of some of the current issues that result in women being paid less than men, starting with the impact on women lawyers of the broader societal expectation of women as caregivers and how this limits the kind of opportunities available to them. Doolittle provided an anecdote from an interview she had with one male partner at a large firm who said that when he is choosing which associate to bring in on a big case, he will choose a man over a woman who is married and/or of child-bearing age to avoid the risk that she could become pregnant and disrupt case preparations.

Another problem exists in the way that women and men lawyers sometimes develop their books of business differently. The panelists agreed that when you are compensated by the business you bring in and when files are doled out based on personal relationships, your work can suffer if you are not able or willing to go for drinks after a 12-hour day or to go golfing on a weekend with colleagues and clients. Similarly, women lawyers often get assigned or are expected to take on more non-billable work than their male counterparts.

A lack of transparency is another challenge. One panelist noted that it is difficult to address and intervene in these matters when no one is willing to cough up the actual numbers. Another added that many of us are conditioned to keep quiet about what we earn from an early age, and in other cases, employment contracts strictly prohibit income information being shared laterally. All of these factors combine to make it difficult to know just what we’re dealing with in terms of pay inequity in Canada.

Discussions then turned to potential solutions. At the firm level, it is crucial to encourage a culture shift regarding parental leave being encouraged for and taken by men as well as women. In addition, firms should consider incentivizing, recognizing, and compensating people for the non-billable work they do to mentor junior lawyers and contribute to retention by building a place where women lawyers can see themselves staying long term. Firm leadership also needs to learn that diversity is good for business – in other words, in many cases, this is what clients want to see.

Lawyers can also contribute as individuals by using our privilege to engage in collective action. We can work within our bar associations and law societies to demand disclosure as a first step. We can advocate for ourselves by getting informed about the legal protections out there, but as one panelist noted, ultimately we still have to be brave because right now the onus is on our shoulders. Another panelist noted that this is one area where pay equity legislation may help by putting the responsibility on the employers instead of the employees.

The webinar portion of the event concluded on a positive and hopeful note. Over 70 delegates from across Canada were then divided into small focus groups to discuss their personal experiences with pay inequity based on gender. Questions were based on topics such as whether transparency mattered to them, what relationship they have seen between parental leave and compensation, and what they think workplaces and individuals can do to improve pay equity. These sessions were followed by an individual survey. The anonymous responses from the sessions and the survey will form part of the CBA WLF report on pay equity in the legal profession. Stay tuned for more details as this important work continues!

Grace Cleveland is a lawyer with Cleveland Doan LLP in White Rock, British Columbia.