UK at ‘coronavirus crossroads’ for gender equality, report warns

Female employees could prosper or suffer depending on the actions of employers and the government, campaigners claim

Workplace equality is suffering from the devastating impact of Covid-19, with women falling further behind men in their treatment by employers, a charity has warned.

In a new report released to mark Equal Pay Day today – the date in the calendar year when women effectively stop being paid because of the gender pay gap – the Fawcett Society warned women were more likely to have been furloughed and will be at higher risk of unfair redundancies when the furlough scheme ends.

It said more than four in 10 (43 per cent) working women were worried about their job or promotion prospects, while one in three (35 per cent) working mothers had lost work or seen their hours cut due to childcare responsibilities.

The report also warned the UK childcare sector was at risk of “collapsing” under the strain the outbreak has created – which would also disproportionately affect women.

Sam Smethers, chief executive at the Fawcett Society, said national crises have historically proved to be turning points for equality in the UK, and that the coronavirus outbreak was no different.

“The Second World War gave birth to the welfare state; the winter of discontent led to a new Thatcherite era. The coronavirus crisis puts us at a crossroads again and it is clear that this applies to the gender pay gap,” she said, adding that the progress made on equality in the 50 years since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act was now “at risk of being eroded”.

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The Fawcett Society called on the government to undertake a series of reforms to ensure that women were treated fairly and equally, including further investment in childcare and social care infrastructure, more rights to flexible working, improved paid leave for fathers, and the right for women to know what their male colleagues earn.

Responding to the findings, Ben Willmott, CIPD head of public policy, said it was “crucial that the pandemic does not exacerbate existing inequality still experienced by too many working women or undermine progress that has been made to date.”

He called on the government to “critically review and reform” parental leave policies to create balance and choice over the distribution of childcare responsibilities.

Willmott added: “There is also a need to radically improve the labour market enforcement system to ensure existing employment rights are enforced more effectively and greater support is provided, particularly to small firms, to boost employer compliance.”

Jonquil Hackenberg, head of sustainable business at Infosys, argued creating an outcomes-based work culture would help drive greater equality: “Shifting from ‘hours slaved’ to prioritising outcomes means employees are measured, paid and promoted based on the outcomes of the work they do – not on whether they hit a financial target or worked weekends.”

“Being able to work around nursery schedules and bedtimes, or knowing that your career won’t be stalled by not being able to go into an office every day of the week, are both crucial to achieving equal pay, and to stopping the gender pay gap in its tracks,” she added.

And Charlotte Woodworth, gender equality director at Business in the Community, said employers can take “powerful action to stop the rot”. “From making flexible working the default to calculating ethnicity pay gaps as well as gender pay gaps because women are not just one group, businesses hold the key to ending inequality at work,” she added.

The report did, however, find that some of the negative impact of the pandemic had been offset by positive trends, including the move towards more flexible working and fathers taking on an increased share of childcare duties. Sheila Attwood, managing editor of XpertHR, said employers now needed to expand on these changes: “By building on the arrangements made during the pandemic, organisations can increase the diversity of their workforce and develop an environment where everyone can thrive.”

Kate Palmer, HR director at Peninsula, added that employers were likely to review their workforce practices “to ensure that areas where gender pay gaps may exist are being weeded out,” as well as “remaining open to embracing the flexibility” prompted by the pandemic.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said these figures were further evidence of the threat the pandemic poses to women in the workplace, particularly those from an ethnic minority background.

“Our own assessment has shown that there is an urgent need for the government to take action to invest in childcare, to introduce flexible working as the default, and to introduce better protections for pregnant women and new mothers against redundancy,” she said.

A spokesperson for the government's Equality Hub said: "We know that businesses have been working flat out during this crisis and we recognise the commitment of the vast majority of them to promoting equality in their workforces.”

They added: “As we look to unite the country and recover from the pandemic it is key that companies embrace flexible working initiatives which have a positive impact on recruitment and the productivity of staff."