The Talent

April 20, 2010 6:35 PM

When it Comes to Equal Pay, Who's Worse Off--Women JDs or Women MBAs?

Posted by Vivia Chen

GettyImages_81949172 Tuesday was Equal Pay Day, but women had little reason to celebrate given how far they lag behind men in compensation. Currently in the U.S., women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Twenty-three cents might not sound like a lot until you do the math," wrote Ilene Lang, president of Catalyst, a nonprofit organization working to achieve greater equality and opportunities for working women. "The small nicks to a woman's paycheck add up to astonishing amounts. A woman who graduates high school will earn roughly $700,000 less than her male classmates over the course of her life. A female college graduate will earn $1.2 million less."

Also, women holding professional degrees (JDs, MBAs, and MDs) fare even worse--over the course of their careers, they will earn $2 million less than the men in their graduating class, says Lang. "How's that for a graduation gift?" (Lang was writing in a column posted early Tuesday on Catalyst's blog, Catalyzing.)

Compared to their MBA sisters, women JDs do better--at least in the initial stages of their careers. According to a Catalyst study of 9,000 business school graduates released in February, female MBAs are paid less than their male counterparts from the moment they land their first job after B-school. On average, women earn $4,600 less than men in their first job, even after adjustments are made factoring in work experience, industry, and region. Also, post-business school, men typically start their careers in higher level jobs than women: 60 percent of the women in the study started in entry-level positions, while only 46 percent of the men did the same.

That contrasts markedly with the situation faced by women lawyers once they start working. At the entry level, and possibly throughout most of the associate years, female and male lawyers are paid equally. It's one of the benefits of the rigidity of the legal profession. "A top law firm will not vary widely on what it will offer a brand new associate; standardization of pay practices helps protect women lawyers," says Selena Rezvani, author of The Next Generation of Women Leaders: What You Need to Lead but Won't Learn in Business School. "A bank, on the other hand, will put [its] money where [its] mouth is if they think they're about to hire the next high-flyer." And those high-flyers tend to be men, says Rezvani.

Down the line, law firms do just as well in creating a greater disparity between what women and men earn, and women JDs wind up struggling to stay on top of the heap. According to last year's National Association of Women Lawyers annual report on the retention and promotion of women, female lawyers make up fewer than 16 percent of equity partners at the big firms--a statistic that bears a disheartening resemblance to the 15.7 percent of women who serve as corporate officers at Fortune 500 companies. And when you consider that women have made up over 40 percent of law students for over a decade while female enrollment at business schools has barely hit 30 percent, women lawyers actually lag behind women MBAs.

So who's worse off--women lawyers or women corporate executives?

"JDs come out a bit better in the end," says Rezvani.  "Women lawyers see themselves reflected more often in their classmates and faculty, which gives them more confidence and camaraderie throughout their training."

- Are women lawyers better off? Leave your comment below.

Contact Vivia Chen at [email protected].

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As a devil's advocate, will I be trashed for inquiring whether there may be _any_ objectively verifiable factors to explain a small portion of the disparity in pay, even though sub rosa discrimination is indisputable? This is akin to asking why minorities are underrepresented in law school acceptances, but remains a valid inquiry for social scientists and labor litigators.

If for every dollar a man makes a woman gets 77 cents, that's completely unfair, because the man only has 23 cents left over.

Really though, for things like big law jobs, the question of who is making partner isn't about who the industry favors, but rather who is most willing to work in a BS job working 3000 hours a year for 10 years just to be promoted to service partner and get to bill 3500 hours a year. Many women choose to leave the rat race because their peers (and potential mates) judge them less by their incomes, and there is less pressure on them to be the breadwinner in their families.

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