The diversity dilemma of COVID-19: the gender pay gap during the pandemic

Female workers across the world are putting their health on the line to battle COVID-19, but what is being done for them?

With the recent announcement that the Government had suspended mandatory reports on the gender pay gap for businesses, women are at more risk of facing inequality in the workplace as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Minister for Women & Equalities, Liz Truss, and EHRC Chair, David Isaac, said: “We recognise that employers across the country are facing unprecedented uncertainty and pressure at this time. Because of this, we feel it is only right to suspend enforcement of gender pay gap reporting this year.”

What businesses should do during the epidemic

In response to the Government announcement, Agata Nowakowska, Area Vice President at Skillsoft said: “Coming just days after the UK Government announced it would not be enforcing this year’s gender pay gap reporting deadline, this report shows precisely why we need to maintain a stark focus on gender parity.  

“Resolving gender disparity is complex and is made more so by the severity of the global crisis. However, this report clearly shows that the effects of inequality are also complex and wide-reaching. Three-quarters of those most at risk of coronavirus are women, with the jobs most at risk – in the lowest-paid roles – almost entirely staffed by women.

“Now more than ever is the time to support them. In normal circumstances, pay gap reporting enables companies to actively recognise and work towards improving the gender pay gap, acting as a benchmark for the entire organisation.  But it also goes further, helping employers show their workers they are supported and that the organisation remains conscious of their role in working towards equality.  

“While we are in uncertain times, we must encourage, support and help those that need us the most.  We also must not forget – in the current climate, these are the people we need the most.”

What employers can do after the epidemic

Despite the Government’s suspension of mandatory reporting on the gender pay gap, businesses should still work towards gender equality in the workplace.

Charles Cotton, a senior advisor at the CIPD, said: “When normality starts to return, we encourage employers to turn their attention back to this important agenda.  Most organisations should already have their gender pay data to hand, so if they are in a position to submit their figures, then we would strongly encourage their HR teams to do so. Especially if they have a narrative and action plan ready to publish as well. This will help demonstrate that, notwithstanding the current crisis, their employers are looking towards the future and playing their part in creating a fairer workplace.”

The Fawcett Society found that after the 2008 financial crisis, the gender pay gap rose – and so it should be the goal of businesses to stop this from happening once more.

The female workers during coronavirus

Think tank Autonomy have found that the average pay for workers in high-risk occupations is £574 per week, £15 less than the median weekly earnings in the UK. Of the lowest-paid high-risk workers, 98% of those roles are staffed by women.

According to the WHO, women make up 70% of all health and social care workers across the world. The World Health Organisation found that the majority of home-based care and the global health workforce are women. Assuming women are providing the majority of care, then the majority of supports and services should be directed accordingly.

However, in Britain, 55.47% of staff across major supermarkets are women, yet many major supermarkets have faced gender pay gap disputes.

Across all key sectors, the majority of workers are women; 80% of all Adult Social Care, 77% of the NHS workforce, 65.76% of all sales and retail staff and 69.5% of all teachers. In every sector named, there is a gender pay gap. Women make up 88% of nurses, yet are still paid £44.90 less per week than their male counterparts.

It is clear that women across all sectors are putting their own and their family’s health at risk to keep the country running, yet still aren’t being granted equal pay or treatment for the same work.

The potential effects of the coronavirus

The pay gap could worsen across all sectors too, as it is not subject to solely key workers. People across the country and the world are being furloughed or are having to take time off work, and PayScale found that when women return to work after taking time off, they receive compensation offers that are on average 7% lower than other candidates for the same position.

In a recent report providing advice on how employers can support working parents, UNICEF said: “Because the needs of working parents can vary greatly, different types of flexible work arrangements support parents to care for their children and families.

“Promoting a culture in which workers feel comfortable using policies without fear of discrimination or retaliation is key. Especially for women, who in many places assume more care responsibilities than men, measures should be taken to ensure working mothers are not penalised for their decisions. By adopting and expanding family-friendly policies, employers have a central role to play in supporting the well-being of working parents and their children.”

Sam Smethers, head of The Fawcett Society, also enforced the idea that normalising remote and flexible working could be key in helping working mothers and women in the workplace. “We need to redesign the way we work,” she said. “The coronavirus has forced our hand to do just that.”

The coronavirus outbreak has shown that many employers can offer flexible and remote working, which is something that working mothers often rely on to get a functional work-life balance. If remote and flexible working continues to be a normalised after the COVID-19 outbreak, it will create working environments that are more accessible to working mothers.

However, the ability to work from home does not provide much help in solving the gender pay gap. In essence, it is up to businesses to continue to monitor their pay gap independently and proactively work towards providing equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender.
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