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More Than 1 in 3 Lawyers Are Women

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What do secretaries, teachers and nurses have in common?

They are mostly women and remain among the most popular occupations for women. Although women now account for nearly half the U.S. workforce and their presence is increasing in higher paid occupations — such as lawyers — women still earn less than men.

At mid-career, when earnings peak, the top 10 percent of female lawyers earn more than $300,000 a year, while the top 10 percent of male lawyers earn more than $500,000.

As this year marks the 25th anniversary of the appointment of the first woman to serve as Attorney General of the United States, Janet Reno, we focus on women in the legal profession, including judicial law clerks and judges.

At the time Reno began her tenure, women made up about 1 in 4 lawyers, a sharp increase from fewer than 1 in 25 in 1960 when Reno graduated from law school. Today, there are more than 400,000 women lawyers who make up just over 1 in 3 (38 percent) lawyers.

Growth in women’s labor force participation, as well as women breaking into historically nontraditional occupations, account for much of this large increase. Over the same time period, the number of male lawyers also grew, but at a more modest rate.

Not surprisingly, female lawyers are younger than their male counterparts on average (42 years vs. 50 years). However, among younger attorneys (ages 25 to 34), the pool of women is on par with that of men. In contrast, at older ages (35 and older) the number of men outweighs that of women.

Female attorneys work full-time, year-round on average more than the average for all working women (82 percent vs. 63 percent), but less than male attorneys (85 percent). They also are more likely to work for the government and less likely to be self-employed than their male colleagues.

All this contributes to differences in median earnings between women and men, with a female-to-male earnings ratio for full-time, year-round attorneys of 76 percent, lower than the 80 percent average across all occupations.

Young in their career (under age 35), median earnings between women and men lawyers are relatively close, at $77,000 and $85,000 annually (a 91 percent ratio). These differences increase with age, so that by mid-career (ages 45 to 54) median earnings for women are $121,000 compared with $156,000 of men (a ratio of 78 percent).

Median earnings tell only part of the story. “Super earners”—workers whose yearly earnings exceed typical averages—drive much of the earnings differences between women and men. At mid-career, when earnings peak, the top 10 percent of female lawyers earn more than $300,000 a year, while the top 10 percent of male lawyers earn more than $500,000.

These statistics in this story are based on Census Bureau analysis of data from the American Community Survey  and decennial censuses.


Jennifer Cheeseman Day is a demographer in the Census Bureau's Communications Directorate.


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