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Robyn Doolittle is an investigative reporter at The Globe and Mail.
It was a giant, baby step. Major Canadian law firms – seven in total – told The Globe and Mail that they would be open to releasing gender wage-gap data to a professional body for research purposes.
Their pledge came with caveats – they would need to understand the methodology, as well as how the data would be presented and stored – and of course “open to” is not the same thing as “doing,” but it is still a hugely significant step in the right direction and a first in this country.
For the past two and a half years, I, along with my colleague Chen Wang, have been investigating gender inequities in the work force through our series The Power Gap. This project began as an attempt to better understand the wage gap between men and women working in the same jobs. We collected public sector salary records for nearly 90,000 employees and what we found is that – while salary was an issue – the much bigger problem was the lack of women; the lack of women in six-figure paying jobs in general, in executive positions, on management teams, at the top, on the way to the top and in the middle. By almost every measure, women were outnumbered, outranked and out-earned by men. And that’s only for the public sector. For the most part, we have no idea what’s happening in private business. And that’s enabling this disparity to persist.
Law firms in the United States and Britain have been reporting gender wage information for years. (The most recent American survey found female equity partners in that country made an average of 15 per cent less than their male counterparts.) But firms here have never agreed to any pay transparency. Three years ago, the Canadian Bar Association’s Women Lawyers Forum (WLF) tried to conduct a partner compensation survey, but firms refused to provide numbers – even if the amount was to be expressed as a percentage, and even if the results were anonymous.
As a result, in Canada, the extent of the gender wage gap at law firms has largely been unknown. That changed last month, when The Globe revealed that women equity partners at Cassels Brock & Blackwell made an average of about 25 per cent less than the male equity partners. This was according to a highly confidential document that showed projected compensation for 2019.
A week after this piece ran, I reached out to the two dozen largest law firms in Canada to see if their position had changed since the 2018 WLF survey attempt. Would they consider releasing wage-gap data for research purposes if asked today?
Seven of the 24 – Borden Ladner Gervais, Norton Rose Fulbright, Stikeman Elliott, Aird & Berlis, Dentons, Stewart McKelvey and MLT Aikins – said yes.
It’s a major shift that paves the way for a professional body to start that work. Maybe it’s the bar association, maybe the law societies have a role or maybe the firms come together and disclose it themselves – whatever comes next, these firms are on record saying they are willing and that means something.
In the United Kingdom, every business with 250 or more employees needs to report the wage gap at different quartiles. But many law firms voluntarily divulge more, including partner and associate data. Others go further, and report the wage gap with respect to race and sexual orientation. This is the direction that Canada should go.
There can be a domino effect with transparency. It’s good policy and public relations for these institutions.
In 2017, I worked on a series called Unfounded, which exposed how police mishandled sexual assault investigations. Through hundreds of freedom of information requests, The Globe collected statistics from every police service in Canada around how many allegations are dropped as “unfounded” – meaning baseless or false – every year. (It was one in five, a staggeringly high number.) Before the series ran, police services had refused to volunteer those numbers to us. Through subsequent reporting, I learned that there had been a national effort among police services to try and shutdown the Globe story by refusing to co-operate or even answer basic questions, such as: do you have a dedicated sexual assault unit?
But within weeks of the series’ launch, police services across the country were holding news conferences and pledging to do better. They promised to review previously closed cases. They promised an overhaul of training and policies. They promised more transparency about how cases are handled. Statistics Canada also vowed to start collecting and publishing “unfounded” statistics, which will enable us to go back and see whether those promised policy changes made a difference. Without data, you can’t track progress.
I think that in every institution there are voices pushing decision-makers to do better. I know of police services where certain officers who had been raising these issues for years suddenly found political cover and top-brass buy-in to make changes.
I think the same could happen for law. If you’re a law student trying to decide which firm to join, would you not be more likely to pick a place that is being transparent with its pay practices? I think so.
I’ve been a journalist for about 15 years and I am convinced that the single biggest problem holding this country back is our lack of data. (This is not a unique opinion. The Globe recently published a massively important series on this very issue.) If you don’t have data, you can’t measure a problem. If you can’t measure a problem, you can’t develop strategies to fix it. And even if you tried, you wouldn’t be able to see if those strategies are working, because you have no way to track progress. Without data, we’re all just guessing.
What else we’re thinking about:
I’m still utterly gagged that Scotland’s own Lawrence Chaney – spoiler alert – ended up on top, snatching the crown from the legendary Bimini Bon-Boulash, who mounted the greatest comeback in herstory. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you’ve been missing out on one of the most wonderful (I won’t even say guilty, because #NoRegrets) pleasures of modern television: RuPaul’s Drag Race. A show that combines the best of Project Runway, American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Real Housewives and stand-up comedy. Right now we are being gifted with simultaneously broadcasting seasons – the U.S. and U.K. version. The U.K. finale was Thursday night and it was a showdown between two powerhouses. Congratulations to the wonderful Lawrence, and I’m still proudly #TeamBimini.
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