Gender pay gap widened during the pandemic, ONS data shows

But the overall pay gap for full-time and part-time employees has decreased since 2019

The gender pay gap for all UK employees has increased in the year up to April 2021, new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has shown, with the rise partially attributed to the disproportionately high number of women who were furloughed. 

The ONS found that the gender pay gap – measured as the difference in average hourly earnings, excluding overtime, between men and women – increased in April 2021 to 15.4 per cent, up from 14.9 per cent in 2020.

This increase was more pronounced among full-time UK employees, where the pay gap increased to 7.9 per cent, up from 7 per cent in 2020.

However, the pay gap was still lower than in 2019 when it was 17.4 per cent across both part- and full-time workers, and the ONS said there was still a long-term downward trend, with the gap falling by a quarter over the last decade.

The ONS calculates its pay gap based on its Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings – which takes a snapshot of earnings across the UK economy – and is different from figures based on compulsory gender pay gap reporting.

However, while the ONS figures show that the pay gap has increased over the last year, Sarah Coles, senior personal finance analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said the impact of the furlough scheme may have skewed the figures.

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She noted that in 2020 more men than women were on furlough – and therefore on 80 per cent pay – making the pay gap appear smaller than it would have been in a normal year. “When the 2021 study was done, the position was reversed,” she said, with more women than men on furlough, making the pay gap look larger than it otherwise would have.

Coles added that while things had been changing “very gradually”, the pandemic has had the ability to “alter the pay gap significantly”.

The pandemic had “[enabled] more women to work more flexibly, without it affecting their pay and promotion prospects. So before organisations rush back into the workplace, it’s worth understanding the enormous gains to be made by building in more flexibility”, said Coles.

ONS figures showed that the pay gap was highest for the top 10 per cent of earners, with women in this group earning 16.1 per cent less than their male counterparts. In comparison, the gap was just 3.1 per cent among the bottom 10 per cent.

The ONS noted that higher earners were less affected by furlough, so the downward trend continued as normal for this group.

Older workers also faced a higher pay gap, the figures showed. Women aged between 40 and 49 who worked full time were the age group with the highest gender pay gap, at 12 per cent, while workers under 40 saw the lowest gap of just 3 per cent.

Joeli Brearley, founder of charity Pregnant Then Screwed, said the findings demonstrate a “procreation pay gap” that signifies the specific challenges for women aged 40 and over.

“We cannot pretend to be shocked that this gap has increased when we currently have the third most expensive childcare system in the world and the cost of childcare continues to increase, while the availability of quality childcare is decreasing.”

She called for measures to protect mothers, such as enhanced protection from redundancy, longer maternity leave and increased transparency from employers around flexible working options.