A Lifetime of the Wage Gap: A Law Student’s Perspective

This post is the second in a series of blog posts leading up to Equal Pay Day (April 12) featuring women at the beginning and end of their careers reflecting on the impact of the lifetime wage gap.
Reflections on the Wage Gap from a Law Student . . .
In a little more than a year, I’ll be finishing my final semester of law school and beginning the process of building my legal career.  And, while I won’t be looking for my first professional job—I worked for several years in the nonprofit sector before law school—I will be looking for my first job as an attorney.  As I look toward my new career, I’m excited about the prospect of working in the public interest sector and building my expertise in a particular field within it.  Yet, I’m also frustrated because I know that there’s a high likelihood that I’ll be paid less than my male counterparts.  Moreover, because the wage gap will compound over the course of my career, I could lose $430,480 during a forty-year career simply because I am a woman.
Among some of my friends (both male and female) there’s a perception that the wage gap is no longer a significant problem for many young professional women.  My friends are concerned when they hear that women only make 79 cents for every man’s dollar, but they think that it isn’t a substantial problem for women who have received a college degree.  However, the wage gap persists regardless of a woman’s level of education.  In fact, among people with a bachelor’s degree or higher, women are paid 74 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts.  The fact that the wage gap spans all educational levels really hits home for me—female lawyers are paid, on average, 23 percent less than their male counterparts.  As a woman at the start of her own legal career, I find this figure deeply troubling.  My legal education wasn’t 23 percent less expensive than my male classmates.  My cost of living won’t be 23 percent less than my male coworkers.  And, I won’t be 23 percent less dedicated to my work than my male colleagues.
Group of young executives holding a meeting in a conference room
What also concerns me is how little I can do, as an individual, to protect myself from being paid less than my male coworkers.  As a society, we tend to be uncomfortable talking about salaries, which means that often women don’t even know they’re making less than men—it’s just not something we talk about.  But, if I work in a state that doesn’t prohibit pay secrecy policies, I may not even be allowed to talk about my salary with my male colleagues or to ask them about their salaries.  This is because in many states there are no strong legal protections against an employer requiring, as a condition of employment, that an employee not disclose her salary—and in fact this is common.  If I don’t know I’m being paid less, I can’t take steps to try and remedy the problem.
Furthermore, I know that as I advance in my career as a public interest attorney it may be difficult for me to be promoted to high-level positions—no matter how hard I work.  While working and volunteering in the nonprofit sector over the past several years, I’ve noticed that it’s not uncommon for nonprofit organizations with staffs that are predominantly (60% to 75%) female to be led by male executives.  It’s disheartening to know that later in my career I may bump up against this glass ceiling and, as a result, be paid significantly less than men who began their careers at the same time I did.
This is why, as I start my legal career, I know how important it is to advocate for laws that aim to protect women from the unfair employment practices that lead to the wage gap.  It’s the best way to defend myself—and other young women like me—from these pay disparities.  And maybe, by the time I retire, the wage gap will be a distant memory.