The government has yet to announce whether it will suspend gender pay gap reporting for the second year in a row – and equality campaigners are sounding the alarm.
On 24 March 2020, the UK was in shock. The night before, Boris Johnson had spoken directly to the nation via a live television broadcast, announcing the first UK-wide lockdown in a bid to limit the spread of coronavirus. Suddenly, millions of people were separated from their partners, relatives and friends. Hundreds of thousands of British residents who were abroad on holiday or work trips were scrambling to get home as soon as possible. And businesses up and down the country were shutting their doors, with no idea when – or if – they’d open them again.
Against that backdrop, it was hard to summon much anger (or let’s be honest, even to notice) when the government announced it would not be forcing businesses to publish their gender pay gap data in 2020. In a statement, minister for women and equalities Liz Truss acknowledged the “unprecedented uncertainty and pressure” employers were facing due to the coronavirus pandemic, adding: “We feel it is only right to suspend enforcement of gender pay gap reporting this year.”
Mandatory gender pay gap reporting was first introduced in the UK in 2018, requiring businesses with more than 250 employees to publish the median average pay of their male and female staff every year. But after suspending the requirement to report in 2020, the government has yet to confirm when it will reintroduce it. When Stylist reached out to the government’s Equalities Hub, a spokesperson said a decision had not been reached on whether reporting would be compulsory in 2021.
Now, experts are warning that the gender pay gap – which had been closing, albeit slowly, for years – could be exacerbated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Charlotte Woodworth is the gender equality campaign director at the business-led membership organisation Business In The Community (BITC).
“Women have acted as shock absorbers for much of Covid-19 and the ongoing economic fall-out,” she tells Stylist. “But while this crisis risks doing formidable damage to gender equality, our ability to see that is being undermined by the government’s refusal to reinstate gender pay reporting.”
Companies can still voluntarily report their gender pay gaps in 2021, and the government is encouraging them to do so. But it’s unclear how many will bother without enforcement: analysis by BITC shows that only half of employers disclosed their data in 2020.
“By letting companies avoid reporting their gender pay gap, the UK government is sending a message that they do not care about female workers – burying their heads in the sand while equality goes backwards, not forwards,” Woodworth says.
So what do we know about how the pandemic has affected the UK’s gender pay gap so far? In a nutshell: it’s complicated. The most recent report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which calculates the difference between men and women’s average hourly earnings across all jobs in the UK, shows that the pay gap stood at 15.5% in the year ending April 2020, a drop of 1.9% compared to the previous year.
But we were just one month into the UK’s first national lockdown in April, meaning that those ONS figures don’t reflect how the pandemic would go on to shape the UK economy. Since then, several studies have highlighted the alarming effect the pandemic is having on women’s earnings. Analysis of HMRC data by the Women’s Budget Group (WBG) revealed that women were more likely to be furloughed than men between March and August 2020, resulting in a 20% reduction in income.
Polling published by Fawcett Society in November, meanwhile, found that over a third (35%) of working mothers said they had lost work or hours due to a lack of childcare during the pandemic. And a recent survey of 3,000 managers by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), produced in collaboration with The Guardian, showed that 63% of managers expected to see redundancies in 2021 – but 80% said their companies had not taken steps to ensure losses don’t fall disproportionately on women, or didn’t know if such measures had been introduced.
Long-term, the gender pay gap will widen if women are disproportionately pushed into lower-paid or part-time roles due to the pandemic.
“We are already seeing evidence that Covid has badly impacted women’s employment,” Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of WBG, tells Stylist. “We need more data on what is happening to women at work, not less. Pay gap data has highlighted what is happening in different sectors and different employers, which is vital if we are to see real change.”
It’s important to note that the gender pay gap is inextricably linked to issues of race and class. We know that members of most Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups earn less than white British employees in England and Wales, with women of Black African, Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage experiencing the largest gender pay gap relative to white British men. Similarly, a 2019 government study showed that professional women from working-class backgrounds were paid nearly 40% less, on average, than men whose parents also held professional jobs.
“Gender pay gap reporting is a vital tool for tracking what is happening to women’s pay and ensuring employers are playing their part in creating a fairer future,” Sian Elliott, women’s equality policy officer at the TUC, tells Stylist. “Women have withstood the worst of this crisis – particularly women on low pay, the self-employed, women from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds and working mums.
“Of all the requirements businesses have to report on, gender pay gap reporting was the only one suspended last year,” Elliott continues. “This sent a message to employers that equality is a nice to have but not essential, when the opposite is true.”
Knowing the extent of a problem is not the same as solving a problem, and the gender pay gap won’t disappear if the government does decide to enforce reporting in 2021 (not least because current laws don’t require businesses to actually do anything about their gender pay gaps). But without a full picture of how the pandemic has affected the gender pay gap, we won’t be able to tackle it.
“Data on the gap in pay between women and men is one of the easiest, most obvious ways to assess progress,” says Charlotte Woodworth of Business In The Community. “What reason is there to cover it up?”