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Covid-19 risks turning the gender pay gap into a chasm – unless we act now

Lockdown has reinforced both the causes and the impact of the gender pay gap – and risks making it worse. But we now have an opportunity to build gender equality into workplaces, if companies are prepared to take it.

By Emma Stewart, CEO of Timewise

There is a lot of research coming through about how lockdown is affecting working women. And unfortunately, it all tends to point one way.

According to the IFS, mothers are 47% more likely to have permanently lost their jobs or quit, and 14% more likely to have been furloughed, than fathers. And those who are still working are more likely to be interrupted than their male partners; almost half of mothers’ hours spent doing paid work are split between that and activities such as childcare, compared to under one third of fathers’.

Research from the University of Sussex tells a similar story, with Alison Lacey, a doctoral researcher at the university’s School of Psychology noting that pre-existing inequalities had worsened since the start of the crisis, and that "society has regressed to a 1950s way of living, which will have serious consequences."

What happens when Covid-19 and the gender pay gap collide

The roots of this unfairness have much in common with the issues that fuel the gender pay gap. Women are more likely to work part-time than men, and are more likely to work in insecure, hourly employment and in hard-hit sectors such as hospitality and retail. They tend to earn less, and to take on more of the childcare, in normal circumstances. All of which has fed into women doing most of the juggling right now.

And while all this is bad enough, there’s also a risk that the current crisis is creating a vicious circle, which will mean the gender pay gap is even bigger when we come out of the other side.

The disproportionate number of women who have lost their jobs, or felt they have to step back to keep the family afloat, will be looking for their next job in what is likely to be the worst recession on record. Meanwhile, many of those who are holding on, trying to keep performing in their jobs in truly challenging circumstances, are exhausted and disenfranchised, and increasingly concluding that it’s unsustainable.

As Alison Lacey noted, “We hear about women waking at 5am, working til 9am, then taking on childcare and home learning and doing more work in the evening.” No one could be expected to do their job brilliantly in those circumstances; target delivery, mental health and opportunities for progression are all affected. And if schools don’t get back to normal, these women may be forced to choose between work and family.

We now have an opportunity to create fairer workplaces

What all this means is we’re facing a perfect storm in which organisations stand a high chance of losing the talented women who help reduce their gender pay gap. They also risk letting those who might help close it in future slip through the promotion net.

But wait; as Einstein said, in every crisis lies an opportunity. And here at Timewise we believe that the current focus on these issues could, if we grasp it, be an opportunity to deliver more gender-equal workplaces.

13 million people – men as well as women, fathers as well as mothers – are planning to request permanent flexible working arrangements once lockdown is fully lifted. And if employers are on board, and design proper, flexible ways of working to meet this demand, this will support equality in a number of ways.

For women, the ability to work flexibly will help those who might otherwise have left the workplace stay in, and progress in, their roles. That means more women at a senior level, which will close the gender pay gap, and role models that help others see what’s possible.

Additionally, promoting flexible working as gender neutral will remove the perception of part-time being ‘something for the women’, and encourage more men to help even out the balance of responsibilities in the home.

It’s important to remember, too, that this isn’t just about making office jobs more flexible. For frontline and shift-based employees, remote working is clearly more complex. But exploring how much work their role entails (through part-time or job share roles) or when the work is done (such as staggered start and finish times, or more input and control into shifts) can deliver the change these employees need.

What needs to happen to make it happen

However, for flexible working to work, it has to be done properly. And it’s not just a case of carrying on with the remote working that was introduced in haste for lockdown. Successful flexible working needs to be part of a long term strategy that includes:

  • A culture that recognises that people have lives outside work and seeks to support them
  • A leadership team that understands and champions the reasons for, and delivery of, flex
  • Line managers who know how to design flexible jobs and lead flexible teams
  • A performance management system focused on outputs, not inputs, appropriately adjusted for flexible workers.
  • A CPD programme that takes flexible workers into account and creates opportunities for those who don’t work the traditional 9-5

And if we really want to have a sustainable impact on the gender pay gap, we also need employers across all industries to commit to flexible hiring. That way, those who need to work flexibly will be able to enter, re-enter and progress in the workplace, rather than risk being trapped in a low-status flexible role or excluded from working at all.

We recently shared some thoughts on how you can start to tackle this, as well as some innovative examples of what our Timewise Partners have been doing. But we all need to play our part. As we start to bring people back into the workplace, let’s do so as fairly as possible, and create organisations and cultures in which opportunities are truly equal.

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