Gender pay gap risks being de-prioritised by employers, says equalities watchdog

Fixing the disparity is ‘more important than ever’, the EHRC has warned, as the postponed October reporting deadline fast approaches

Fixing the gender pay gap is “more important than ever”, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has said, warning that businesses could be de-prioritising the issue despite clear evidence that women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

The warning comes as the UK’s equality watchdog prepares to start enforcing gender pay gap reporting requirements again next month as a temporary suspension of enforcement, put in place to help employers through the coronavirus crisis, comes to an end.

Suzanne Baxter, a commissioner at the EHRC, said that with the reporting deadline “fast approaching”, employers needed to start considering what actions were needed to close their pay gaps.

“This is more important than ever,” Baxter said, adding: “The pandemic has had specific effects on women in the workplace and if we want to continue the progress that has been made towards workplace equality, then action to address the causes of pay gaps needs to be a key priority.

In the UK it is mandatory for organisations with 250 or more employees to report their gender pay gap annually, however in recognition of the impact that coronavirus had on businesses, the EHRC decided not take any enforcement action on companies that failed to report their figures for 2019-2020 – essentially meaning firms were not required to report their figures for that year.

The watchdog is requiring businesses to submit gender pay gap data for 2020-21, but said that it would not carry out any enforcement on companies that fail to report their data until 5 October, in effect giving firms a six-month extension on the usual April deadline.

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Government figures show that so far just 5,000 employers out of around 12,500 that meet the reporting requirements have filed their figures for this year.

To support employers, the EHRC in partnership with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) has published guidance for employers on how to address gender inequality, which suggests businesses anonymising CVs and application forms, advertising jobs at all levels as open to flexible working from day one and actively promote shared parental leave to staff, among other things.

Ann Francke, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute, said that while it was understandable that gender pay gap reporting was suspended at the height of the pandemic, it was “now clear that women's earnings and career prospects have been disproportionately affected by Covid.”

“Progress on the gender pay gap is at real risk of being taken for granted,” Francke said, calling for it to be “out back front and centre of policy making”.

She added that while the widespread move to flexible working that happened during the pandemic could provide more opportunities to women, there was a real risk women could also be left out of decision making or miss out on the support that could help them progress their career.

“Now that the economic ship is being steadied, it would be a stain on our national conscience to allow a two-tier workforce to emerge in the UK.”

As well as complying with reporting requirements, Charles Cotton, senior policy adviser for performance and reward at the CIPD, called on firms to also publish a narrative explaining their figures and an action plan to detail the steps employers plan to take to create a fair workplace.

“Large, listed companies must produce a narrative currently when disclosing their CEO pay ratio figures, so we would like to see a similar requirement for gender pay gap reporting as well,” said Cotton.

“Such a step will help employers and their stakeholders assess the fairness of recruitment, management, development, and reward practices.”