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  • Flora Fitzpatrick

The Pay Gap and the Pandemic

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

A year on and we are still in the grip of a worldwide pandemic. Covid-19 has brought uncertainty and instability to our everyday lives. It also brings the biggest threat to the economic progress of women in the 21st century.

So, in light of recent government decisions, we must ask: is this really the right time to delay the enforcement of company reports on gender pay gap figures?

Mind the (pay) gap

Whenever we speak of the gender pay gap, it is important to remind ourselves what exactly it is we are discussing. In 1970, the Equal Pay Act prohibited employers from paying one person a lower hourly wage than another person for the same job. But this new legislation did not suddenly and magically eradicate all workplace inequality.

50 years later, and different from unequal pay, the gender pay gap persists. In 2019, an Independent article found that 78% of UK companies reported a pay gap in favour of men. The gender pay gap is caused by a multitude of factors. Statistically speaking, women occupy fewer senior or high-earning roles than men. More women have part-time jobs, often so that they can balance childcare with work. A 2019 study found that the average pay for mothers in the UK, the US, Denmark, Austria and Germany dips after their first child is born and never recovers. Ever.

The suspension of gender pay gap reporting

In 2017, the UK government made changes to the Equality Act which stipulated that public and private companies with over 250 employees are legally required to report their gender pay gap figures. The data first appeared on the government’s searchable website in 2018. Across different sectors and a total of 12,370 employers, women were consistently paid less than men. To be precise, women were paid 17.9% less than men per hour. Inequality across the UK workforce was, and still is, stark and dramatic.

"In 2018, women were paid 17.9% less than men per hour"

UK companies were originally due to release their gender pay gap data for the 20/21 reporting year in March 2020. However, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) suspended this enforcement until March 2021, citing the upheaval of the pandemic as the reason.

Having reached March 2021, many are disappointed to find that the government has suspended company reports on gender pay gap figures for yet another six months. The Labour Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary, Marsha de Cordova warned that all available evidence demonstrates that the Covid crisis is having “awful consequences” for women’s representation in the workforce. You can read more here.

The impact of the pandemic on working women

The government cites the pandemic as the reason for twice delaying the enforcement of gender pay gap reporting, but if the pandemic is potentially worsening women’s progress, is this really the right decision?

The fallout from the pandemic has been brutal for everyone, but it has deepened pre-existing inequalities. You can read our article discussing the impact of Covid-19 on women here. In sum, women are at more risk of losing their jobs. Holding 69% of low-paid roles, women have borne the brunt of redundancies since March 2020.

The burden of care is the single largest barrier to women’s economic participation everywhere in the world. In the UK – where childcare is more expensive than in most western nations – about 40% of working women are employed part-time (see UK Parliament research briefing for more). A Guardian article from July 2020 reports that women, who make-up three-quarters of the part-time labour force, were hit hard in the first 11 weeks of the pandemic when jobs fell 70%.

"Mothers have been 47% more likely to lose their jobs than their male counterparts"

Women have continued to take on the lion’s share of house work. A recent Independent article reports that ‘women are twice as likely to need time off work with no pay to look after children due to schools closing under lockdown measures, many studies discovered women bore the brunt of childcare responsibilities, household chores and homeschooling during the first lockdown – regardless of whether they were juggling the tasks with paid work or not’.

Lockdown has punished mothers, who have been 47% more likely to lose their jobs than their male counterparts, according to research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Mothers also are more likely to be furloughed and their hours have been cut back 50% more.

The pandemic: a justification?

In their 2020 report, the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that ‘gender gaps can potentially be closed in 54 years in Western Europe, 59 years in Latin America and the Caribbean . . . 71 and a half years in South Asia, 95 years in Sub-Saharan Africa, 107 years in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 140 years in the Middle East and North Africa, 151 years in North America. . . and 163 years in East Asia and the Pacific’.

The spread of Covid-19 not only threatens to slow, but to almost completely unravel the last 50 years of progress achieved by the equal pay movement. International institutions like the UN and WEF warn that the pandemic could push back progress by half a century.

"Covid-19 threatens to almost completely unravel the last 50 years of progress"

As the executive director of the Equality Trust, Dr. Wanda Wyporska writes, ‘undoubtedly women are bearing the brunt of this, as they did in austerity when 86% of cuts fell on women. There is a cumulative effect which consistently pushes progress back’.

By delaying the publication of gender pay gap reports, the government refuses to hold companies and private businesses to account at a time when women are at a higher risk of losing their jobs. At this rate, our workplaces are set to look a lot less diverse in a post-covid world.

So, what do these actions, or perhaps, series of inactions say about the priorities of our government? It appears that closing the gender pay gap isn’t very high on the list...

A glimmer of hope

While this news does present us with what may feel like an impossible fight, it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. The global spread of Covid-19 has rapidly changed the way we work. The Fawcett Society sees the opportunities which the pandemic offers:

Flexible working becomes the norm

The government should take advantage of flexible working hours and legally make all jobs flexible, and advertised as such, unless there is a clear business requirement not to.

Fathers provide a greater share of unpaid care

Although mothers have been taking on more unpaid care than fathers, during lockdown fathers’ time dedicated to childcare doubled. The government should reform parental leave to create a longer, better paid period of reserved leave for fathers and second carers.

Workplaces respond to the need for intersectional equality

The government should reintroduce and extend gender pay gap reporting requirements to include ethnicity pay gap reporting. They could also consider asking employers to publish action plans setting out the steps they will take to advance equality in their workplaces.

The Fawcett Society is the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for gender equality. They are running a campaign providing visibility to women throughout the pandemic and are currently conducting research into the pay and progression of women of colour. To learn more, visit here.


The coronavirus poses a serious threat to the financial and social progression of women. The pandemic has put working mothers, and working women in general, in a particularly precarious position. By refusing to enforce gender pay reporting, the government tells us that achieving a society based on equality is not a priority.

Hold the government accountable by joining campaigns such as the one run by the Fawcett Society. Read up about the gender pay gap, tell your friends and use your voice to call out injustice when you see it.

For more articles on women's rights, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.

Edited by Olena Strzelbicka

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