WOMEN in Scotland's legal profession are being paid significantly less than their male counterparts, with the sector lagging behind other occupations in tackling the pay gap.

Research by the Law Society of Scotland shows that today marks the point at which some female solicitors begin effectively working for free in comparison to their male colleagues as a result of the disparities.

The findings, which came as a think tank warned of a general widening pay gap north of the border, show that the average salary for women in the legal profession is 42 per cent lower than for men, with females earning an average of £32,650 less.

Janet Hood, convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s Equality and Diversity committee, said: “A 42 per cent gender pay gap reflects very badly on what is otherwise a modern and forward-thinking profession – with some female solicitors effectively working for free for five months of the year.

“There are many and nuanced reasons why the gender pay gap exists, and the legal profession is certainly not alone – figures from November 2014 show that the overall UK gap was 9.4 per cent.

"However we have seen little change in the past decade compared to other professions such as accountancy or dentistry. Quite simply it is not something we can afford to ignore, for either ethical or business reasons."

The research shows that there is very little difference between male and female solicitors' earnings when they first start out, however from the age of 36 onwards women tend to be paid lower salaries than men.

Women, who now make up half the legal profession in Scotland, are more likely to be in a salary band up to £65,000, while men are more prevalent in salary bands above this figure.

The findings also show that females tend to remain associates or assistants rather than being promoted to partner level.

The Law Society claims that while there seems to be little evidence of direct discrimination in terms of women being paid less for equivalent roles, there "appears to be an issue around assumptions made about women", with the report indicating that women earn less than their male counterparts whether or not they have children.

Ms Hood added that there should be "no limit set" on female solicitors' talent and ambition, adding that it is also in employers' interests to ensure women are treated equally.

"Employers have legal responsibilities in relation to equality as well as any commercial considerations", she said.

"They need to be aware of the extent of the gender pay gap within their own organisations and take action to ensure that they meet their obligations and, importantly, work to retain talented individuals who can help their businesses thrive now and in the future.

"Many government and other organisations sourcing legal services also include equality criteria as part of their tendering processes.

"If law firms are not taking steps to ensure that they are meeting these, they could be adversely affected."

Meanwhile, think tank Fiscal Affairs Scotland warned that while Scotland made progress in reducing the gender pay gap between 1997 and 2011, it rose over the following three years.

It found that Northern Ireland has eliminated differences in pay between men and women, with Wales overtaking Scotland in 2014. The situation has remained worse in England, although if current trends continue, Scotland will soon find itself with the largest differences in the UK.

The report states: “Scotland has seen a rise in the gender gap. This is in contrast to the continuing decline in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is not clear why this should be the case.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said tackling the pay gap was a “key priority”.