• Tue. Mar 2nd, 2021

We need to know the extent of the gender pay gap more than ever

ByDNP

Feb 23, 2021

Covid-19 has hit women much harder than men in financial terms (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A couple of years ago, a good friend found out that someone she managed was earning much more than her. 

On the surface it made little sense; she was more senior, more experienced and under much more professional pressure, reporting directly to senior management. 

The mother of a young child, she was achieving the impossible: balancing the demands of a professionally ambitious role with those of being the mother to young children, succeeding in both and (mostly) retaining her sanity. 

She was happy in her management-level job, which she viewed as the culmination of years of hard work and proving herself — so why, was this more junior person being paid more?

Or rather, why was this less qualified man being paid more than her to do a more junior job?

I’ll let you decide.

Her story is not in any way unique, if national statistics are anything to go by. In the year to April 2020 the gender pay gap was measured at 15.5%, down from 17.4% the preceding year.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the percentage measures ‘the difference between the average hourly earnings (excluding overtime) of men and women as a proportion of men’s average hourly earnings (excluding overtime),’ and is calculated as an average for all working men and women rather than those working in the same role.

Roughly translated this means that for every hour a woman works across any job — she is earning 15.5% less than she would do if she were a man. In money terms, that’s £0.84 for every £1 a man earns. 

This is before you even take into account other characteristics, such as ethnicity, physical ability and mental health, which all have a strong multiplier effect when it comes to broadening this gap in earnings. The social impact of all of this is astronomical.

And that was before the pandemic.

You don’t need me to tell you by now that the Covid-19 has hit women much harder than men in financial terms. That women all over the world are more likely to have lost their job owing to the pandemic — 1.8 times more likely in fact, according to research from McKinsey and Company. Or that the burden of care from both children and the elderly has fallen squarely on the shoulders of women, reducing their ability to work.

Some early studies have highlighted these issues; one, from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) paints a grim picture by saying that ‘in lockdown, mothers in two-parent households are only doing, on average, a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours of fathers’ and that ‘in families where the father has lost his job while the mother kept hers, men and women still split housework and childcare responsibilities fairly equally’.

Transparency is a key component in any push for progress; if you don’t know the scale of a problem, how on earth can you even begin to think about addressing it?

But data is still sparse, meaning that it’ll be a while until we know the whole impact of the pandemic on women — particularly working women. And while we don’t yet have the full picture, early indicators all point in one direction: that women’s rights are at risk of being pushed back by decades, a sentiment expressed by the UN in its ‘The Impact of Covid-19 on Women’ report last April.

We simply cannot afford for this to happen, which is why I welcomed the news that the Government is reinstating gender pay-gap reporting, after pausing it last year to relieve pressure on businesses caused by the pandemic. 

What I was less pleased about, however, was the fact that the Government will give organisations a six month grace period after the usual April deadline before any actions are taken against them. 

First, I want to say that I wholeheartedly appreciate the pressure on businesses of the last 12 months, and the impact this is having on individuals. But delaying the collection of this data any longer is simply not acceptable, because the reality is that without it we cannot get a rounded view of the past 12 months on working women — and therefore work to remedy it.

There’s an argument to be made for the fact it should never have been suspended in the first place. 

When mandatory gender pay-gap reporting was introduced in 2017 in the updated Equality Act for companies of 250 people or more, it signalled a commitment by the Government to fully understanding the scale of the issue and working towards delivering true pay equality for women. 

It also marked the end of years of tireless campaigning by equality advocates that understood that transparency rests at the heart of meaningful change.

When the Government suspended reporting last April, it doubtless did so to help businesses facing the brewing storm presented by the pandemic — to give them one less thing to worry about. 

But here’s the thing; in doing so they demonstrated a tacit belief that commitment to driving equality for the genders is a ‘nice to have’ rather than what it should be, what it needs to be: a core component of business strategy that influences all levels of decision-making — especially during times of crisis.

As a result, we are missing a year of critical data at a time when progress on women’s rights is more imperiled than it has been for decades. It is something that incredible campaigners such as Anna Whitehouse (who is the founder of Mother Pukka) and Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary, Marsha de Cordova, are fighting to defend. 

Transparency is a key component in any push for progress; if you don’t know the scale of a problem, how on earth can you even begin to think about addressing it? It is much easier for bad practices and discrimination to fester in the darkness. 

Those with the power to change things must be both held accountable and supported as they transition to a more equitable and fair future for all. 

The Government’s role in setting the agenda, metrics, timelines and goals is fundamental in all of this. It must advocate for the change at all levels and hold its commitment firm and strong. It is the only way to deliver true, meaningful and lasting change; change that is capable of improving the lives of millions of people.

From where I’m standing, the only conceivable driver for delaying reporting is fear — fear that the data will paint an even worse picture than we had imagined. 

But fear can be a good thing, because it shows recognition that the challenges facing us all since this began are weighing heavier on women, and that this betrays the spirit of equality to which the Government has so often paid lip service.

The other good thing about fear is that it is frenetic, and often motivates positive change. 

Equality benefits everyone; it’s time the Government started practising what it preaches.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected] 

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