The Pandemic and Gender Economic Inequality

by Caroline Gretton

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has announced that the “enforcement action against employers failing to report their gender pay gap will start on 5 October 2021”. The gender pay gap reporting enforcement was suspended by the EHRC in March 2020 due to the impact of COVID-19, meaning that the enforcement was suspended entirely in the reporting year of 2019/2020. The suspension of the gender pay gap reporting demonstrates how women continuously fail to be prioritised and indicates another way in which women’s rights have been neglected during the pandemic. Women have been one of the most economically vulnerable groups during the health crisis as a government report stated that ethnic minorities, women, young people, low paid workers and disabled workers have been the most economically affected by COVID-19.

Gender pay gap regulations are important for ensuring businesses are committed to gender equality and is essential to understanding the specific causes of gendered economic inequalities. While providing equal pay is not a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010, it does prohibit less favourable treatment based on gender in terms of pay and employment conditions. Prior to the pandemic, a government report found that “77% of organisations reporting in 2017/18 [had] a gender pay gap in favour of men”. And now, due to the type of work women are in and the increasing domestic responsibilities as a result of the pandemic, women have experienced further economic disadvantages based on their sex.

With women leading in caring and leisure work, administrative responsibilities, and sales and customer service roles, more women than men were put on furlough. The House of Commons reported that “[t]he reasons why more women are furloughed than men, […] is because more women hold jobs eligible for furlough”, with 57% of workers, in sectors dominated by women, shutting down in 2019 (compared to an average of 48%). The report also showed a significant rise in the number of women made redundant as redundancy levels for women rose by 212% in 2020.

Additionally, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that mothers are significantly more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit, due to domestic and childcare demands since the first lockdown (23% to have lost their jobs (temporarily or permanently) during the current crisis; 47% to have permanently lost their job or quit). As schools closed, women became more likely to bare the tasks of caring and schooling their children than men. This has meant that women have missed out on work and paid hours to take up childcare support during the pandemic. The Fawcett Society noted that 50% of employed BAME women and 43% of employed white women have concerns about their job or promotion prospects due to the coronavirus.

Economic and employment vulnerabilities are not the only rights that women have been deprived of during the pandemic. Domestic abuse towards women, such as sexual, physical and mental abuse, has increased since the COVID-19 outbreak at an assumed rate of 20%. The failure to support women’s economic independence has heightened women’s vulnerabilities to abuse and other types of human rights violations, as women may be subject to stay with their abuser out of a financial inability to leave, as well as lockdown provisions.

The failure to monitor the pay gap and women’s economic situation removes the responsibility to tackle these inequalities and human rights violations, as it ignores the impact that the pandemic has on women’s economic positions in comparison to men. With an already significant gender pay gap prior to the pandemic, the suspension of the gender pay gap regulations fails to protect women’s economic and social security and has accentuated the lack of support received by women from the government and businesses.

While the regulation should not have been suspended in the first place, the reporting requirements have been re-established and submissions by companies are expected in October 2021. The EHRC’s Chair, Baroness Kishwer Falkner, stated, “[t]he COVID-crisis cannot be allowed to undermine companies’ commitments to tackle all forms of inequality, so resuming mandatory gender pay gap reporting is the right thing to do”.

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