Mind the gap: why gender equality in the workplace must not be another casualty of Covid-19

This International Women’s Day feels significant, coming in the wake of a crisis that has shone a light on how far we still have to go for true equality between men and women. From being over-represented in the sectors that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, to shouldering caring responsibilities for our young and our old during lockdown, women have been disproportionately affected by the fallout from Covid-19. 

There is some synergy in the fact that International Women’s Day has fallen on the day that schools have reopened in England following their second prolonged closure in a year. Finally mothers can work without having to simultaneously homeschool their children. It seems we have fallen back on gender stereotypes over the past year, with women taking on the majority of unpaid domestic work, whatever their employment situation. The notion that the virus might erase decades of progress made in the fight for gender equality in the workplace remains incredibly worrying. The chairwoman of the Women and Equalities Committee, Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, has compared the size of the challenge women face following the pandemic to the struggle of the suffragettes in gaining women the vote

Sectors such as retail and hospitality that employ a greater percentage of women than men have been amongst the hardest hit by the pandemic. WaveTrackR data has shown that the two sectors have had amongst the biggest negative growth in terms of jobs of all industries. This has led to a greater number of women either being made redundant or placed on furlough. Those that have kept their jobs have borne the brunt of domestic responsibilities, including childcare. A study conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studie (IFC) and the UCL Institute of Education during the first lockdown showed that mothers were 47% more likely to have permanently lost their job or resigned to take on childcare whilst schools and nurseries were shut. Worryingly, a recent survey conducted by the Chartered Management Institute found that 80% of managers polled admitted that they had not taken steps to ensure redundancies haven’t fallen disproportionately on women. The IFC study also showed that mothers reduced their hours more than fathers, even if they were still working. Mothers were able to do just one hour of interrupted work for every three hours completed by fathers. 

Many women, too, have been front line workers, putting themselves at greater risk. Sectors such as nursing, education and retail are dominated by women and, globally, 70% of health workers and first responders are women (in the UK the figure is 78%). However, at 28%, the gender pay gap in the health sector is over 10% higher than the overall global pay gap. The last time gender pay gap reporting was published in the UK, in April 2020, the figure stood at 15.5%. This is down from the previous year but we don’t currently know what it is for the year from April as the government made the decision to scrap it. The reason given was to decrease the workload for businesses during the uncertain times of the pandemic, despite the fact that the crisis was the very time such reporting was most needed. 

Following pressure from campaigners, gender pay gap reporting was reinstated in February and, encouragingly, the Chartered Management Institute revealed that 85% of managers believe that it should remain compulsory. This points to the vast majority understanding that it benefits businesses and the economy if women gain equality in the workplace in all areas, quite apart from it being simply the right thing to do. A clear insight into the gender pay gap is provided by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which has found that the gap for full-time employees under the age of 40 has been close to zero since 2018. However, in the age group 40-49, this jumps to 10%. The reason for this may lie in the fact that the difference in pay between men and women is largest amongst higher earners. As workers inch up the ladder and enter leadership positions, the gap increases to 16.7%. 

This could be severely setting back our economy. Mckinsey research has found that the value add to the UK economy of more companies having gender diverse executive teams could be over £150 billion a year. This is the case across the globe. As more women have entered the workforce over the past few decades, the global economy has strengthened. Global economists have issued stark warnings that the pandemic may leave 31 million women unemployed, reducing the global GDP by $1 trillion. It is clear that we need women back at work in order to accelerate economic recovery.

Although the pandemic has undoubtedly affected the progress made in closing the gap in equality between the sexes, it has highlighted how vital women are to the economy and to the running of the UK. It has also accelerated changes that will aid women in several ways. As businesses were forced to work from home where possible, flexible working went mainstream. It may have originated from necessity but it has driven permanent change in the workplace. This will help more women into the workforce and allow a greater number to climb higher. In 2019, the ONS released a report that revealed that women are more likely than men to accept lower pay in favour of a shorter commute, which contributed to the overall gender pay gap. Without needing to worry about commuting time affecting childcare arrangements, women will be able to push for that promotion or greater pay when negotiating terms for a new job.

This International Women’s Day we are being asked to #ChoosetoChallenge and the gender pay gap is something we should all challenge. It is also something the recruitment industry has the ability to drive. Radical change is possible and it would be for the betterment of us all. More women and greater diversity in the workforce means diversity of thought, increased innovation and, ultimately, a boosted economy. As Boris Johnson implements schemes to “build back better” we must ensure we do so with greater diversity and inclusion for a productive and successful economy.      

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