Banner triangles

COVID-19 and its impact on women at work

COVID-19 has undoubtedly had a significant impact on workplaces across the UK. However, what is becoming increasingly clear is the impact which it has had and continues to have on women in work. We consider the statistics and how employers should respond.

What do the statistics show?

1. Sectors

  • During lockdown, women were more likely to work in the sectors that had to completely shut-down such as hospitality (23% of women vs 16% men in these industries).
  • 75% of furloughed male workers had their wages topped up beyond the 80% government cap provided for under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, in comparison to 65% of female workers.

Although little commentary has been provided around why more men had their furlough pay ‘topped up’ by their employers, we consider that this is likely to be due to the industries in which they work being better able to withstand the impact of COVID-19. It may also reflect the fact that employers are likely to want to protect those in senior, higher paid roles which are more typically held by men.

2. Childcare

  • Mothers were 47% more like to have permanently lost their jobs or resigned as a result of COVID-19.
  • Mothers in two-parent households were doing, on average, a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours of fathers.
  • Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, mothers did paid work for an average of 6.3 hours on each weekday, which has now reduced to 4.9 hours.

Commentary on these statistics suggests that where women could continue in work, they were less likely to be able to do so (or dedicate the same amount of time to work) due to childcare responsibilities. Although it might be presumed this is just a temporary setback, women who lessened their workload during lockdown may actually find it harder to return to pre-pandemic work levels given the recession the UK is now facing, not to mention the fact that childcare is likely to be limited for some time to come.

  • 10,000 childcare providers may go under as a result of the pandemic which would put around 150,000 childcare places at risk.

If the childcare statistics do hold true, this will not only adversely impact the high levels of women working in that sector, but it will also impact on the working mothers who rely on such childcare places to enable them to remain in work. For women working in sectors which are on course to recover more quickly, this could be particularly detrimental.

There are lots of useful resources available (some of which we have linked below) which set out further data/analysis on the impact of the pandemic on women.

Gender Pay Gap Reporting

As well as the impact which the pandemic itself has had on women, it was announced earlier this year that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was suspending enforcement action in relation to gender pay gap reporting for the year 2019/2020. This effectively means that there would be no consequences for employers who failed to publish their gender pay gaps by 6 April 2020. As a result, very few organisations have actually published their gender pay statistics for the 2019/2020 reporting year.

Whilst the statistics suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has had / is having a disproportionate impact on women, it is important to emphasise that COVID-19 has only exacerbated an existing problem in so far as gender equality is concerned; it hasn’t caused it. Prior to the pandemic, the gender pay gap among all employees was 17.3% (in 2019).

Sadly, although eligible employers haven’t been required to publish their gender pay statistics this year, it’s unlikely that we are going to see a reduced pay gap come 2021. Indeed, because of the disruption caused by the pandemic, many organisations will have had to put on hold initiatives which they might otherwise have implemented to reduce gender pay inequality in the workplace, putting back pay parity for years to come.

We don’t yet know if and how guidance on pay reporting will change ahead of the 2021 deadline, Whilst it is possible that furlough pay will be excluded from the next round of gender pay gap reporting figures, on the basis of the current rules, the number of women on furlough and/or reduced hours and/or pay in comparison to men is unfortunately only likely to widen the gender pay gap.

What can employers do and what do they need to be aware of?

For many businesses, the present is all about surviving the crisis and that’s understandable. However, companies do need to be mindful of two things:

  • Firstly, if any of the actions which they have taken during the pandemic are found to have a greater negative impact on female employees, then there is a risk that these will be found to be indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of sex.
  • Secondly, many businesses now strive to be “employers of choice” and want to build their brand so that they attract and maintain the best talent. Employers who aren’t seen to be taking steps to support their female employees – or indeed, are seen to not treat employees respectfully during challenging times – may well struggle with both attraction and retention in the future.

As a starting point, it would be advisable for employers to ensure that they have sound flexible working policies in place and that managers are trained on how to deal with such requests. A lot of businesses which we are working with are anticipating an increase in the number of requests for flexible working, particularly given the apparent success of homeworking during lockdown.

Businesses should also consider whether greater flexibility can be offered, for example, can an employee work from home more regularly? Can greater flexibility be offered to allow, particularly women, to juggle their personal and work commitments? Can working hours be adjusted within a working day as needed? Developing a culture of trust will be imperative in businesses which are now working more flexibly, so that employees feel able, and supported, to get the job done in a way that works with their other responsibilities

Employers should also make sure that their return-to-office approaches are inclusive, and don’t inadvertently exclude women. For example, by ensuring that meetings are arranged at times which fit with different schedules and providing options so that those still working from home are able to participate equally.

Whilst there is a lot of commentary more generally on the impact of performance targets/bonus criteria on women, for current purposes, it would also be wise for employers to consider any promotion or bonus criteria to ensure that women aren’t disadvantaged as a result of the pandemic. For example, a woman who is unable to work the same hours as a result of having to home-school during lockdown may well be able to argue that any bonus scheme which does not make allowance for this is indirectly discriminatory.

Can we turn what looks like a negative into a positive?

Whilst this isn’t a question which we have the answer to, rather than seeing the statistics as a negative, we believe they can be used to increase the focus on gender equality. It is important that employers learn from the statistics, are aware of the factors within the current crisis which may exacerbate gender inequalities in future, and act quickly to mitigate the risks to working women. The new ways of working are an opportunity to engage more meaningfully and support women in their organisation in order to create a workplace where both men and women can thrive.

Further useful resources are available that set out further data/analysis on the impact of the pandemic on women including:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/173cuSrweSe9klMW0q98EDth5-ow5zsQa/view

https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/exiting-lockdown-the-impact-on-women-1

https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/14861

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.

Insights

Read the latest articles and commentary from Shoosmiths or you can explore our full insights library.