COVID-19 Puts British Women at ‘Crossroads’ on Workplace Equality

Report launched on Equal Pay Day urges government to lock in pandemic’s positive changes such as flexible working.

British women are at a “coronavirus crossroads” in the fight for workplace equality as COVID-19 threatens to reverse decades of progress while also causing a dramatic shift in working culture that could help them thrive, a report said on Friday. The government should lock in the positive changes with a law requiring almost all jobs to allow flexible working, said the report issued on Britain’s Equal Pay Day – the date on which the gender pay gap means women effectively start working for free until year-end.

“Throughout the last century, crises comparable to the pandemic have been forks in the path of history,” said Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, a leading women’s rights group which issued the report. “The coronavirus crisis puts us at a crossroads again, and it is clear that this applies to the gender pay gap.” COVID-19 has disproportionately hit women’s careers, with studies finding they are more likely to work in sectors badly impacted by the pandemic and are picking up a heavier load of unpaid childcare and chores than men.

Britain’s gender gap in hourly pay narrowed to 11.5% in 2020 from 13.1% in 2019, according to the latest data, though the Fawcett Society said the figures did not reflect the fact that many women had cut their hours to do childcare during lockdown. While the pandemic poses serious threats to women’s workplace equality, the dramatic rise in home-working and flexible arrangements could benefit mothers who often struggle to combine work and childcare, Friday’s report said.

There are also signs of progress in data showing that fathers doubled the amount of time they spent doing childcare under lockdown, it said, though women were still doing more. However, the report warned that women would only benefit if the government took steps to cement in the positive changes and protect female workers from discrimination. The Young Women’s Trust, a feminist organisation, also called for action in response to the pandemic, including launching a state jobs and training programme for young women and requiring employers to publish redundancy data by gender.

Women’s rights group Equality Now backed the calls for change, adding that Black and other ethnic minority women were also being hard hit by the pandemic’s economic fallout. “COVID has shone a spotlight on equality disparities,” said Alexandra Patsalides, a lawyer at the group. “Now is the time for the government, policymakers, and employers to truly revolutionise their policies and mechanisms so as to ensure greater opportunities and support to women from all backgrounds.”

Reporting by Sonia Elks; Editing by Helen Popper Thomas Reuters Foundation

Photo: Jeys Tubianosa