Mind the gap

Gender pay disparities look set to widen post-pandemic

Whilst we can hope for the better in some ways – a new attitude towards climate change, a greater appreciation for the people around us and freedom of movement – there’s one that might be heading way, way back into the past. That thing? The gender pay gap. Just months into the coronavirus pandemic, both the United Nations and the World Economic Forum warned the world that, without definitive action, women’s economic progress towards closing the gender pay gap could be sent back decades.

At its most basic definition, the gender pay gap is the percentage difference between average hourly earnings for men and women. In the United Kingdom, the gender pay gap is about 18%, meaning that, on average, men earn 18% more than women, according to data collected by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). In 2019, 78 of the biggest companies in Britain reported a distinctive pay gap between male and female employees.

“It would take around 200 years for the gender pay gap to be closed fully and for women to achieve equal pay to their male counterparts”

The World Economic Forum has predicted that, based on current progress, it would take around 200 years for the gender pay gap to be closed fully and for women to achieve equal pay to their male counterparts. Though pay discrimination is illegal in UK law, thanks to the 2010 Equal Pay Act, the reality stands that women consistently make less than their male counterparts, even if they are performing in a similar role.

The gap widens even further for women of colour who are not only discriminated against in pay but further in opportunities to rise within a company and to be hired by employers at all.

So what has been the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the pay gap? Well, to understand that, we must understand why the gender pay gap exists. According to The Fawcett Society, who are actively campaigning to close the gender pay gap, there are three reasons women earn less than men:

  1. Differences in unpaid care responsibilities with men;
  2. A higher percentage of women are in low-paid, ‘low-skilled’ work;
  3. Outright discrimination from employers

Each of these factors existed long before the pandemic even began. Coronavirus has shown the weaknesses in a system that fails to support the most vulnerable working women and exacerbated the impact of these factors on women. One of the biggest effects of the pandemic on the pay gap is that women are far more likely to be found either in jobs that are unstable – whether that’s by zero hours contracts or part time work – or working in sectors that have been decimated by the national lockdown.

The National Law Review found that 77% of frontline workers are female, with jobs that are impossible to do from home. The pandemic has increased the level of unpaid care that they are performing in the home – of which women perform 60% more than men – and so have less time to work, reducing their earnings overall. There is also a high proportion of women working in sectors like leisure, hospitality, tourism and the arts – industries that are struggling not to collapse following the government’s slow response to action over the spring.

The poverty charity Turn2Us has predicted that women’s incomes are likely to drop around 26% because of the pandemic, with single mothers likely to take the brunt of economic trouble in the long term. That’s if, of course, these women have managed to keep their jobs – the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that women are more likely to have lost their job during the pandemic than men.

There is no denying the gender pay gap is widening – and the pandemic has only sped it up. We can only hope that the effects of the pandemic don’t extend those 200 years we have to wait until the gender pay gap is finally closed.

Current Affairs

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