As we celebrate International Women’s Day, schools in the UK re-open, and for parents and carers across the country, there is hope of being able to return to a new work-life normal.
Over the last year, COVID-19 has highlighted many inequalities: for young people, ethnic minorities, key workers and older people, and for women in particular. PwC’s recent Women in Work Index 2021 highlighted the risk of the pandemic reversing the gains in women’s economic empowerment of the last decade.
My own research for Insuring Women’s Futures – a market-led programme bringing together policy, business, financial services and third sector experts – analyses gender differences in working, family and healthy lives to understand the root causes of, and propose solutions to close, women’s financial resilience gap.
Drivers of the gender pay and earnings gap pre, and post, pandemic
Pre-pandemic, women’s lifetime earnings were just 59% of men’s – a result of women’s lower participation, pay and progression in the workplace due to qualification gaps, predominance in low paid and insecure work, workplace culture and practices, as well as a family caring and relationship circumstances.
Analysis by various organisations of ONS data highlights the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on young women’s jobs in shut-down sectors, and that mothers are more likely to have been furloughed or reduced hours, lost their job or quit due to greater caring responsibilities. Rising domestic abuse is impacting female survivors’ ability to work, and older women are more likely than older men to have lost their job.
At the same time, many women – especially low-paid, part-time mothers and older workers – are less digitally skilled and more likely to struggle to get back into work and restart careers.
Pay gap reporting
The pandemic coincided with the 2019 corporate gender pay reporting deadline (which was relaxed by the government) and the ASHE pay and earnings survey. Half of firms disclosed their 2019 gender pay gap – with fewer providing explanations and actions – and 75% of employers responded to the survey compared to the prior year.
The survey data indicated a small reduction in the pay gap, although the results should be approached with some caution. This is because of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the fact that shutdown sectors (such as retail) significantly contributed to the improvement, and subsequent events profoundly impacting women’s work.
Last week the Equalities and Human Rights Commission announced it does expect corporates to disclose gender pay gap data this year and is allowing a six-month extension to the deadline. While the extension will help business with reporting, there is an imminent need to focus on gender data insights as we emerge from lockdown to ensure approaches do not inadvertently widen the gap.
Using data to build back fairer
Set out below are five steps businesses and employers can take, and where gendered pay and related data insights will help ensure fair policies and practices underpin the workforce of the future. Employers can embed approaches as part of environmental, social and governance practices, linked to corporate purpose.
- Working practices on transitioning back to workplaces – Ensure ways of working acknowledge and accommodate employees’ changing circumstances. Child and wider family care support systems will take time to re-establish. Many employers are also testing new working practices. Leveraging pay gap data and collecting gendered and intersectional data, considering life circumstances, on flexible and hybrid models will be invaluable in shaping inclusive ways of working.
- Job retention, redundancy and workforce restructuring – Many businesses will be changed forever as a result of the pandemic, leading to changes in the structure of the workforce. Using insight data (including gender) to inform decisions will help remove biases and ensure there are no unintended consequences and support comprehensive levelling up.
- Gender balance in skills development and job creation strategies – Skills and qualification data highlights gender gaps, with evidence of this widening during the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, almost three quarters of jobs expected to be automated were performed by women. Using gendered and intersectional data to inform level up strategies, including for opportunities set out in the Government’s Plan for Jobs, will support the development of a more equal workforce.
- Policies to level up parents, carers and older workers and support abuse survivors – Now is a good time to refresh, and improve transparency of policies for parents, carers and older workers. Gendered insight data will support the design and monitoring the effectiveness of these policies in creating equal opportunity and better balance. The Domestic Abuse Bill 2021 is expected to highlight employers’ role in supporting survivors, and employers will wish to consider survivor policies for domestic and economic abuse, including flexible working.
- Employee benefits, pensions and financial wellbeing – Using gendered and intersectional data insights to understand the profile of the workforce (such as full or part-time, life stage, family circumstance) supports fair pensions, benefits and financial wellbeing strategies. Some employers are already analysing their gender pension gaps to improve the design of pensions arrangements and engagement strategies. Employers can sign up to the Financial Flexible Working Pledge to help staff better navigate their financial futures.