Published in The Times The Brief on 5 April 2018

The deadline for gender pay gap reporting closed yesterday, but what does the published data tell us? Fox & Partners’ Ronnie Fox questions whether the requirements are a waste of money, brains and time – a Wombat.

Almost everyone in England now believes that men and women taking the same time to do the same job to the same standard should receive the same remuneration. I like to believe that as civilisation advances, we achieve a better understanding of what is fair and correct.

The right to equal pay is part of a welcome revolution in thinking which has led to universal suffrage, equality of opportunity, access to education regardless of sex, glass ceilings being smashed and the desire for diversity in every respect.

It was not always thus. I remember a discussion about partners’ profit shares when it was seriously argued that if a woman was married to a man who earned a reasonable income, she needed less money and should therefore receive a lower profit share.

I recollect being told about a first meeting with a new male client: when a female partner came into the meeting room, he assumed that she was a secretary and said he had been expecting to meet her boss. Although the objectives of equality and diversity are now widely shared, we are not there yet. One female client told me recently that her law firm, despite professing to encourage diversity, was run as a boys’ club.

The deadline for publishing data under the gender pay gap reporting legislation arrives today. My question is whether gender pay reporting is helping the legal profession to progress towards achieving widely-shared objectives or whether it is just another regulatory burden with which solicitors must cope (on top of the implications of Brexit, the new anti-money laundering rules and the General Data Protection Regulation). A small mercy is that gender gap pay reporting applies only to businesses with 250 or more employees.

What does the published data tell us? As everybody was anticipating, nearly all the statistics published to date seem to show that men are earning more than women of equal seniority. Journalists are seizing on the disparities between apparently similar law firms and placing pressure on firms to provide more and more information – including statistics about profit-sharing partners – going beyond what the legislation requires.

The data reflects decisions taken years ago in a completely different cultural and technological environment. Historically most lawyers worked with secretaries – usually on a one-to-one basis – who would take dictation, type letters, arrange appointments, bind documents, make tea and be paid for overtime. Most lawyers were men and nearly all secretaries were women.

Now the number of women qualifying as solicitors each year is greater than the number of men. Information technology is transforming the way law is practised in ways which are obvious to older lawyers and taken for granted by younger lawyers. Secretaries are gradually taking on increasingly demanding roles as administrative assistants and paralegals; secretaries in law firms are arranging professional indemnity insurance, ordering office supplies, managing facilities, preparing submissions for the guides to law firms and organising communications.

These are all essential tasks but they do not require a law degree or up-to-date knowledge in a specialist area of law. Inevitably statistics grouping together secretaries, administrative assistants and lawyers now show a gender pay gap.

Kate Andrews of the Institute of Economic Affairs points out that the reporting exercise is “worse than useless” as the required data does not compare like-for-like jobs, qualifications or full- and part-time workers; “[The reports] not only fail to tell us anything meaningful about pay discrepancy between men and women in the workplace,” she said. “They have also produced a huge influx of misleading statistics that undermine well-meaning companies and threaten jobs for women.”

The most recent outbreak of hysteria: a group of female MPs has launched an online campaign called #PayMeToo to encourage women to demand action over the gender pay gap.

Good progress is being made. Women are fulfilling an increasing proportion of senior roles in law firms, in business and in society generally. Obviously different firms are moving at different rates towards reaching widely-shared objectives. However we are not learning anything useful from recently published data. The gender pay gap reporting requirements are a waste of money, brains and time – a Wombat.