In-house counsel compensation results: Considering gender wage parity one year later

Barbara De Dios outlines practical organizational steps towards closing the gender wage gap

In-house counsel compensation results: Considering gender wage parity one year later
Barbara De Dios

Approximately one year ago, the 2020 In-House Counsel Compensation & Career Survey results (developed by the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association and The Counsel Network) were released. The survey analyzed in-house counsel compensation vis-à-vis certain trends demonstrated by data collected across Canada.

At the time, legal media focused on specific, and seemingly persistent trends – one of them being the continued presence of gender wage gaps among in-house counsel across various industries.

It is now June 2021. A year since these findings were released.

What has your organization done since then to encourage gender wage parity?

Starting with leadership and organizational decision-makers

Several years ago, within the crowded confines of a Starbucks location in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, a female professional acquaintance expressed her very real frustrations regarding the topic of pay equity. Her disappointment stemmed from feelings of hurt, betrayal, and shock at the complacency of a director of legal who she trusted to equally advocate for members of his legal team.

“Our director of legal knew I was underpaid compared to a male lawyer in our department – my male colleague was called to the bar after me, with less experience, held the very same responsibilities and title as I did, and yet he was paid significantly more than I was. I couldn’t believe our director just…. let it happen.”

At the time, the underlying message was clear: allyship, intersecting with action, can start with those in leadership roles. Who else could affect (and effect) substantive change, if not for decision-makers within our organizations, regardless of industry?

Granted, decision-making, particularly in-house, may involve various levels of bureaucratic channels, multiple conversations and meetings, strategy sessions among senior decision-makers, among other typical levels of action found within a given structure of governance. But among these, several themes may remain.

When it comes to addressing the sensitive topic of wages in-house:

  • It is tempting to claim a lack of decision-making power, or a hesitancy to make waves, as an excuse for inaction, or, worse, complacency. If you are not a part of the senior decision-making inner circle – as a director of legal, senior counsel, do you just… let this issue go?
  • Allyship within our organizations involves substantive action.
  • Action starts with a decision-maker, advocating on equity issues to their inner circle of decision-makers (or with the collective agreement of that group to understand issues like these and agree to take concrete action and correct it).

Does your organization reflect this report?

Isn’t it ironic that the legal profession, considered a pillar and administrator of justice and integrity, remains marred with questions about gender wage gaps from the perspective of both in-house and private practice?

Admittedly, decisions on wage from an in-house perspective involve certain factors that may or may not be present in private practice. They may be wrapped up among various reasons: perspectives on the woman’s professional experience or knowledge about the organization’s industry, simple business decision making, the influence of decision-makers who are not necessarily lawyers, among many others.

But as survey results like these are released on an ongoing basis, it begs the question: have you addressed potential wage gaps in your industry or organization – at all? Gender wage parity is not an issue strictly relevant to the legal profession and spans multiple industries to address a very core, foundational issue: hard data demonstrates that women lawyers in-house, at least as of data released last year, are paid less than men for a variety of reasons.

Has your organization actually asked itself the question: do I reflect this report? And if I do, what have I done to correct that? And if I have not… do I care enough about this issue to substantively make an effort towards internal organizational change?

Practical steps to consider

It’s certainly simple to raise objection or cry afoul when reports like the CCCA / The Counsel Network’s are released, to raise this issue as a topic of conversation when it becomes a news headline. But as the days and months pass following the release of data such as these, is your organization consistent with tangibly following up?

As we continue to deal with various issues in our organizations on a day-to-day basis – consider some practical organizational steps (even small ones) to begin addressing this issue:

  1. Practically, there are opportunities to address this very tangible topic annually – during performance review season, or with the intentional practice of quarterly check-ins to regularly review opportunities and promote leadership development and encouraging the growth of management skills among women lawyers in your organization (particular at the general counsel level).
  2. Be intentional about embedding frequent wage reviews into your governance process. And when you do so, be intentional with comparing the wages of your women lawyers to salary baselines of legal departments in your industry or organizations of your size to ensure that you stay competitive or, at least, on par.
  3. Dismissing a woman lawyer when it comes to wage increases without a tangible effort to promote steps or a plan for future change is not enough. Set practical, tangible targets. Avoid the pitfall of favouring male counterparts who inner circle participants identify with based on mere social relationships. Provide opportunities for leadership and development without falling into the trap of certain excuses – she’s too young, she doesn’t have the time because of childcare, she’s not experienced enough, among others. Leadership skills, which lead to leadership roles, which lead to wage reviews at the executive level, takes support from you.
  4. Has your organization thought about expanding its “inner circle” of decision-making? Or, at the very least, seriously considered the feedback of managers, team leaders, supervisors, particularly those who work directly with your legal department? Expanding the reach of your consideration may promote tangible, honest feedback, with the goal of displacing the frustration of management complacency expressed at the beginning of this article.

Practical, meaningful organizational change – in culture, values, and strategy – take time. But the choice to take steps like the ones above remain. It is an organizational choice to take this issue beyond a topic of mere conversation into practical, tangible steps for change.

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