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Female in-house lawyers earn 11-per-cent less on average than their male counterparts, a gap that has not narrowed at all over the past two years, while racialized lawyers and those with a disability also earn less, according to a new report.

The study was published Tuesday by legal recruiter The Counsel Network and professional development group The Canadian Corporate Counsel Association. It found that men made an average base salary of $177,000, compared with an average of $158,000 for women. That gap of $19,000 has not changed since 2018 (the divide was $26,500 in 2016). The gender disparity is also notable at higher wage levels: 30 per cent of male respondents said they earn more than $200,000, while just 19 per cent of women receive the same level of pay.

“The advancement of women is still something that definitely remains a challenge,” said Dal Bhathal, managing partner of The Counsel Network, who added she is concerned that equity, diversity and inclusion issues could get pushed to the back burner amid the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“Over the last couple of years, we’ve really seen conversations taking place, increased interest in these issues and people accepting that it does impact the bottom line, but there’s just so much more work that needs to get done.”

Her organization began the survey in 2009 and since then, has also conducted it in 2010, 2012, 2016 and 2018. This year, it surveyed more than 1,100 lawyers across Canada working as in-house counsel at private and public companies as well as non-profits, government and crown corporations.

The study has tracked information on ethnicity and disability in the past, but this was the first year that it reported on those issues in relation to compensation. It found that 23 per cent of respondents identified as racialized lawyers and they earned $12,000 less on average than non-racialized lawyers. Similarly, lawyers with disabilities reported that they earned an average of $12,000 less than able-bodied respondents.

Ronit Dinovitzer, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto who researches the legal profession, said the survey’s information is useful at a general level. However, she said more granular data on issues such as discretionary bonuses, which can be a major contributor to compensation gaps, would be helpful.

Prof. Dinovitzer noted that the survey showed that more women were employed in non-profit, government and crown corporation roles, which could explain the lower average rate of compensation, but added that men working for those employers also earned higher base salaries than women.

Data is crucial to “start asking better questions," Prof. Dinovitzer said. "If the goal is earnings parity – and every single one of these organizations will say that’s the goal - the only way we’ll get there is through data.”

In recent years, many major law firms have undertaken gender and diversity initiatives but there is no equivalent publicly available survey or data on compensation for lawyers at private law firms in Canada. The Women Lawyers Forum, a division of the Canadian Bar Association, said in 2018 that it planned to survey firms with more than 50 lawyers receiving partner compensation and report on the results in the spring of 2019.

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Sabrina Bandali, a partner with Bennett Jones LLP and national chair of the Women Lawyers Forum, said Tuesday the group is “in the process” of publishing the results from its initial survey, noting: “The process of conducting that survey taught us a lot about the comfort level among the law firms surveyed with discussing the specifics of compensation and gender dynamics at play.”

“Our experience taught us that we needed to gather data in a different way,” Ms. Bandali said, adding that her organization hopes to launch a national roundtable on pay equity in the legal profession in early 2021.

She said the survey of in-house counsel lawyers shows “we have work to do,” adding, “Part of that work is self-reflection on the part of the legal profession and legal workplaces to make sure we are designing our compensation and hiring processes to interrupt biases and strive to make sure that merit – not assumptions or implicit biases – guides our decision-making.”

The in-house counsel survey of 1,141 lawyers was conducted by Bramm Research between Jan. 14 and Feb. 28 and it has a margin of error between plus or minus three percentage points.

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