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According to Merit?: Nothing to celebrate

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Cite as: September 2014 88 (09) LIJ, p.81

Equal Pay Day is a reminder of why it pays to be male in the profession.

“I wanted my picture in the calendar so that young girls and young women can see me and know that they can do this job,” [Danae Mines aka Miss March] said.1

And more power to her. At the risk of being accused of having double standards, I like a calendar where the only person representing a month but wearing a top is a woman. In this case a woman who is one of only 41 women on the payroll of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY).

But why am I talking firefighters, pin-up calendars and women in September? What relevance can this have to women in the legal profession? Sadly, more than you think.

On 1 September we celebrate Equal Pay Day.2 Another double standard but this time not one applied by Merit. Rather, this standard is applied by society generally, without discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation or political association. Sadly however, it is a standard applied by society with discrimination on the basis of carer responsibilities, stereotypes and gender.

Far from a cause for celebration, Equal Pay Day is not a celebration of equality but of inequality. The first of September each year is the day on which women should be filing their annual group certificate because that is the day on which they earn the annual salary of their male counterparts. That means, on average, women work 60 days – or two months – more than the man with an equivalent degree, experience and effort in the next office to earn their 20 days of annual leave.

Women in the FDNY are protected from this double standard in a way that women in the Victorian legal profession are not. After all, both the US and Australia have laws that prohibit wage discrimination on the basis of sex, requiring both men and women be paid the same wage for the same job. This doesn’t work for the women battling barriers in the FDNY. These laws promote equality in a formal sense but fail to take into account the many variables that unequally affect women.

What does this mean for women in the Victorian legal profession?

The answer, sadly, is consistent with that of women in the FDNY:

“The 2012 GradStats Report by Graduate Careers Australia has revealed that the starting salary of male law graduates is around $4300 higher than female law graduates, which is almost a doubling of the $2000 disparity recorded in 2011.”3

Merit has previously iterated and reiterated the pipeline theory and its increasingly hollow promises. For those who have previously skipped over the promises of the pipeline theory, it is the Pollyanna of theories. Its premise is that sheer weight of numbers will force the blockage prohibiting the equal advancement of women to the more well paid echelons of the profession to dissolve, allowing merit not sex to determine promotion. A premise with lofty ambitions but, sadly, with shallow roots.

When I submitted my doctoral thesis on women in the legal profession in 2008, I looked back at the winners of the Supreme Court prize in Victorian universities in the period 1996-2006.

In 1996 the Supreme Court Prize winner at the University of Melbourne was female with the 2006 prize being jointly shared by a male and a female. In the intervening years the prize was won on five occasions by a male and on six by a female, with the prize being jointly won in some years.

Since then nothing has changed. Women meet or equal men as the best in each graduating year according to the former dean of the University of Sydney law school Gillian Trigg, who also claimed that women regularly outshine men at university.

“They are often the top prize winners. It’s arguable they mature earlier, get high marks and do brilliantly at law . . . firms and government bodies know this very well and pick up these young women with great enthusiasm.”4

In the 2012 GradStats Report law was ranked third, behind architecture/ building and dentistry, as an occupation that had the most pronounced gender pay gap for graduates.5

Happy Equal Pay Day.


DR LIZ BISHOP is a lecturer at the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights, Monash University.

1. www.nydailynews.com/new-york/woman-featured- fdny-calendar-heroes-article-1.1866827.
2
. www.bpw.com.au/equal-pay-day.
3
. www.lawyersweekly.com.au/lawyer2b/it-pays-to-be- a-male-law-grad.
4. Note 3 above.
5
. www.graduatecareers.com.au/wp-content/uploads/ 2013/12/GCAGradStats2013.pdf.

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