Covid-19: what is the virus doing to the world of work and the gender pay gap?

As early as April this year, the United Nations was warning that coronavirus was exacerbating inequalities for women across the world and with good reason. In the employment field, this is becoming evident for a number of reasons, in particular:

  • Women often work in service industries such as hospitality, retail and tourism which have been heavily hit by Covid-19;
  • Studies highlight what many of us know anecdotally to be true: more unpaid family care at home tends to be carried out by women, which is currently a greater burden given school and childcare settings have been shut or only partially open)
  • More women having been furloughed, or had to ask for and unpaid time off
  • Many are simply not being able to carry out their work effectively. A recent study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies has suggested that mothers are more likely than fathers to be trying to work while simultaneously trying to care for their families during this crisis (allegedly to the tune of doing four hours more unpaid work, both childcare and housework, than fathers). They are also more likely to have their efforts to do paid work interrupted by children.
  • The demands of juggling childcare in this way has meant that mothers are more likely to lose their jobs or resign. In fact, the Institute of Fiscal Studies claims that mothers are 47% more likely to lose their jobs (or quit) than fathers during the pandemic.

Although there are some positive signs, in particular evidence that fathers are currently doing more childcare and housework than they have ever done before, this all leads to the inevitable conclusion that this pandemic will set back the gender pay gap, possibly by many years.

To add to this, the government’s main weapon against the gender pay gap, the requirement to publish gender pay figures, has been suspended during the pandemic, with publication in April voluntary only.  As a result, less than half of the businesses covered by the reporting requirements have published their figures according to BIS, approximately 5.000 businesses.

A large pay gap?

A recent TUC report showed that, prior to the coronavirus crisis, women already worked an average of two months for free, reflecting a 17.3% gender pay gap nationwide.  Recent reports in the press suggest that the gender pay gap begins straight out of university, with an average of 10% lower earnings for women than men just 15 months after graduating.

The statistical explanation for this pay gap?  The gap is often blamed on clustering in female-dominant industries (often having a large number of low paid roles), reduced pay among mothers (the so called “motherhood penalty”) and a lack of advancement.  These areas are inevitably being exacerbated by the pandemic and lockdown.

In May the national poverty charity Turn2Us published a survey suggesting that the gender pay gap is already growing as a result of the pandemic, with women now receiving an average of approximately £62 per month less than men. The nationwide survey of 2,014 working aged adults revealed that women’s incomes are expected to fall by £309 (26%); compared to an 18% drop (£247) in earnings for men. This gulf was shown to be even greater in two-parent households that are both employed, a fall of £405 per month for women, and £309 for men.

With public focus on these issues, it is likely that once the pandemic is over trade unions and the government will turn their attention to gender pay in an attempt to bring the gap back under control.  Businesses could therefore take the opportunity now to reflect on the steps which can be taken to narrow the gender pay gap and, where possible, build those steps into any action plan for the future and handling our “new normal”.  For those employers who have to report on their gender pay gap next year, setting out these steps in the published narrative may help to mitigate negative publicity created by any increase to the gap.

Practical steps to reduce your gender pay gap/increase opportunities for women

The obvious easy win for employers may be to take advantage of the fact that remote working has become widespread during lockdown, and may enable more flexible working practices into the future.  You could consider reviewing any flexible working policy and be open to a swarm of applications as working parents seek to find a way to manage work alongside the uncertainty of schools and childcare settings reopening (and, importantly, staying open).

Examples of other steps which can be taken, as suggested by ACAS their original guidance on gender pay gap reporting include:

 

  • Other support for working parents – a lack of support for female employees with children, can block significant advancement on addressing the gender pay gap. Progress at work can be incompatible with limited flexible working options. Developing initiatives to encourage mentoring and development, as well as encouraging greater take-up of shared parental leave by men could also be beneficial.

 

  • Enhancing recruitment initiatives – employers are encouraged to work with local charities/education providers to support a number of facilities and work-experience opportunities aimed at motivating and developing skills in disadvantaged students – encouraging female students in particular – with the intention that a wider pool of better skilled and balanced candidates becomes available.

 

Clearly some roles lend themselves to flexible working options more than others, but what used to seem inconceivable in many roles has become possible as so many jobs have had to be undertaken at home. A ‘can do’ attitude is so fundamental to success at work and maybe this is the time to think about what we can all do to harness the untapped female talent that hasn’t always been able to contribute to the workplace.

 

If you would like further advice tailored to your particular circumstances, please contact us.