The Intent and Hope

‘Be it enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—

1. Requirement of equal treatment for men and women in same employment. The provisions of this section shall have effect with a view to securing that employers give equal treatment as regards terms and conditions of employment to men and to women, that is to say that for men and women employed on like work the terms and conditions of one sex are not in any respect less favourable than those of the other’.

This original Equal Pay Act was passed on May 29th 1970 and the issues of womens’ pay have been debated in parliament since before even the IPA was founded. I have been working with civil servants and employers most of my career on how to build more gender-equal workplaces. But I have never been busier or more optimistic in doing so than at the moment.

In fact we now have another proposed piece of equal pay legislation, introduced as a private members’ bill and given leave to proceed after a rousing speech by Labour MP Stella Creasy in the Commons last Tuesday.  As she pointed out somewhat ironically to  members, ‘we have been here before!’. The Equal Pay Implementation and Claims (EPIC) Bill, now starting out on its Covid-delayed-journey through the Byzantine  parliamentary process, with a second reading on Equal Pay Day next month, set me reflecting on the progress we have made and still need to make on gender equality over the past fifty years.

Or perhaps I should say inequality. Because we still have serious gender-gaps evident in many aspects of UK employment, from the continuance of a near 20% gender earnings gap; through to the under-representation of women in senior positions across all sectors of the economy; and the over-sharing of domestic chores and childcare responsibilities. And the reason for the current urgency is that once again, under the influence of Covid and the recession it has created, it is getting worse.

I was preparing earlier this month to give verbal evidence to the House of Commons Women and Equality Committee’s inquiry into the gendered and unequal impact of the pandemic, which I did on the previous Wednesday afternoon. But as with many aspect of this unique crisis we have been facing over the past six months, the two-hour session reminded me that amidst the all the horror and suffering of this horrendous pandemic and its associated social and economic damage, there is more than a glimmer of opportunity for improvement, for what feminist writer Rebecca Solnit based on her research of disasters termed a ‘paradise built in hell’.


The Impact of Covid: Female Employment Hell?

Sitting that Wednesday afternoon in my bedroom-office, staring at the Committee members on my Zoom screen and surrounded by headlines of ‘The Coronavirus Crisis taking women back to the 1950’s (The FT) and ‘Women sacrificial lambs in Covid childcare crisis’ (The Guardian), it is perhaps easier initially to discern the current ‘hell’ rather than any future ‘heaven’. The Commons’ inquiry was set up after a raft of early research evidence showing that, despite the higher death rates of elderly males from Covid-19, and unlike most previous recessions such as the last following the financial crash in 2008/9, women have been taking a disproportionate share of the negative impact of the virus.

IES analysis of the over nine million workers who have been on the government’s furlough scheme, which finishes this month, and planned redundancies by employers in the months ahead, concludes that: ‘low-income workers are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic’; and these workers are ‘more likely to be women, to be lone parents, to be from certain ethnic minority groups (Black, Pakistani or Bangladeshi), and/or to have no qualifications’.

Women are much more likely than men to be in the precarious jobs and in low-paying sectors such as entertainment and hospitality hardest hit by the lockdown and slow, stuttering pace of subsequent economic recovery. Women also predominate in the keyworker roles which are mostly not amenable to homeworking, which have seen the highest occupational mortality rates from Covid, notably care home workers and retail assistants.

This month’s latest employment figures from the Office for National Statistics found that a remarkable 90% of the 490,000 fall in employment in the first six months of 2020 has been in part-time jobs, and most of that majority-female population is going into economic inactivity rather than onto benefits and seeking work. I think a reasonable hypothesis for this population is that it comprises of a combination of two large categories of female-dominated work:

  • part-time/Zero Hours Contract/agency low-paid workers, who are easier and cheaper to lay off than full-time better-paid men, or even to go through the hassle of furloughing them; and
  • largely better-paid women who were just about coping with their part-time work and children before the pandemic, but home-schooling, etc. during lockdown has driven them to give up working altogether.

On the latter category, a similar situation seems to be occurring in the US and is evident in their employment data at the moment. Over 800,000 women dropped out of the labour force there last month alone, compared to around 200,000 males.

The results from the UK’s quarterly Labour Force Surveys for January -to June 2020 of those still in work but not working normally (that is temporarily away from work or working fewer hours), shows that both for employed and self-employed women, the impact of the pandemic has been much more significant on them than for men. The data shows a major and continuing reduction in their working hours and pay, as they have been forced to spend more time on domestic and caring responsibilities rather than on their paid work. The national gender pay gap is almost certain to rise as a result.

That the former population of low-paid/low-power female workers is already apparently being prioritised in redundancy exercises, is possibly even more concerning from an equality perspective, especially with the number of redundancies having doubled in the last quarter and almost all forecasts being that it will to keep on increasing for the rest of this year at least.



The interim report for our research project at IES funded by the Standard Life Foundation on the impact of the pandemic on low paid workers, which I shared with the Commons Committee, provides some remarkable and moving insights into the real-life experiences and hardship evident behind the national statistics.

To quote from the findings:

‘Some of those who worked on-demand via agencies, such as (female) domiciliary care workers, saw a significant reduction in the hours they were being offered during lockdown. Others, usually working part-time hours and on zero-hours contracts, were made redundant from their job. Several asked their employer why they had made this decision and why they were not being furloughed. The reasons given included their employer questioning their eligibility for the Job Retention Scheme (despite working for their employer several months prior to lockdown) and being unable to calculate their furlough entitlement due to losing records of their employment’.

When asked about what additional support they would value, ‘a wide variety of recommendations were put forward’ by these low-paid employees:

including better awareness of workers’ rights and legal protection in context of COVID-19; greater assistance with job searches, retraining and childcare for those currently unemployed; and a range of financial support measures, from access to free financial advice services to further raising Universal Credit standard allowance.

Which is pretty much what we supposed experts were recommending to the Commons’ Committee last week!

Although this research is only involving 40 households, I think alongside other quantitative data, it reinforces the general applicability of our findings, and reinforces the need for greater awareness of employment rights and legislation, as well as new protections, for example for pregnant women.

A recent survey by ACAS found that 25% of employers were unaware of basic redundancy legislation such as minimum employee notice periods, never mind more detailed aspects, such as the existing priority protection from being selected for redundancy for those on maternity leave.


Ignorance by Governments

Outside of the Commons’ Women and Equality Committee, you could be forgiven for thinking that the empty benches around Stella Creasey on Tuesday had to do with more than just social distancing, and that the UK government are at best unaware and at worst consciously ignoring the gendered nature of the pandemic’s impact Their totally-no-evidence-based decision to suspend compulsory gender pay gap reporting two weeks before the April annual deadline, remarkably and disgracefully endorsed  by the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission,  rightly came in for criticism from all other quarters.

It is likely to mean that as Fiona Cannon, Head of Inclusion from Lloyds Banking Group explained,  in many organisations gender pay is liable to ‘ fall off the board agenda quite quickly’. Analysis of the 5,822 reports already posted on the government’s website before the compulsion was suspended shows this to be happening already, with a 0.9% increase in the median pay gap amongst these employers over the last 12 months to 12.8%, reversing the progress of recent years.

There was no heading, or even mention, of ‘gender’ or ‘equality’ in Rishi Sunak’s Winter Economic Plan which in this difficult and uncertain climate replaced the government’s planned Budget last month, reinforcing the perception that gender is being ignored. Unfortunately, the UK government seems to be far from unique here.

UN Women have launched a new tracker of government policy responses to counter the social and economic consequences of the pandemic for women. The tracker shows that 42 countries, one fifth of those analysed, have no gender-sensitive measures in response to COVID-19 at all. Only 25 countries, 12% of the world studied, have introduced comprehensive measures. Social protection, care crisis and jobs responses they observe ‘have been largely blind to women’s needs’.

The UN’s conclusion is that “Despite the clear gendered implications of the crises, response and recovery efforts tend to ignore the needs of women and girls until it’s too late. We need to do better”. According to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who chastised governments at the start of this month for their lack of response: ‘a higher level of ambition is needed to make the necessary policy changes’


An equality policy paradise?

Oxford Professor Linda Scott’s new book, the Double X Economy, contains even more negative statistics than I have related here. Yet like me, she remains optimistic that the pandemic’s extreme impact will highlight as well as exacerbate existing inequality, stimulating a counter-reaction and belated recognition of the trillions of dollars that can be produced to combat the recession ‘if women are enabled and empowered to participate fully in the global economy’. And that indeed might not be as difficult at it first appears to be. Governments and employers face difficult economic conditions, but we all have agency here, we have choices

Perhaps my key point  to the parliamentary committee was that a lot of what is required in a reform agenda to #buildbackbetter, to stem this more equal pay and employment roll-back and to realise this potential, to better protect women and reinforce progress on pay and representation, already exists somewhere in the parliamentary domain. So pursuit by government through to implementation, rather than developing lots of new legislation, is required.

Beyond the new equal pay bill, this is particularly the case in terms of the government’s 2018  Good Work Plan which promises amongst its 50 odd proposals adopted from Mathew Taylor’s 2017 report:

  • A right to flexible work rather than the existing right to request it;
  • Rights to request stable working hours after a minimum period in employment;
  • Tougher labour market enforcement against law-breaking employers and in supply chains such as Boohoo’s in Leicester, as recommended in the new CIPD report which I co-authored for them.

Consultations have been held on a number of these issues already, but we still await signs of the promised Employment Bill which we understand is supposed to be progressing at least some of them. They would all have major benefits, especially for female workers.

Other legislation which the pandemic has highlighted the need for includes:

  • The Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy protection) Bill, put forward as a private members bill recently by the Committee’s former chair by Ms Maria Miller MP, vital for the government to support and enact as redundancy levels escalate;
  • Improved childcare and family support to help stem the current wave of financially-induced closures of nurseries and childminder facilities; a number of research studies highlight financial and cultural reasons for the low take up of shared parental leave by fathers, highlighting the need to introduce shared parental pay, as in Germany, and possibly additional requirements, such as the Swedish ‘use it or lose it’ approach, in order to encourage a greater sharing of parental duties;
  • Banning the discussion of current pay levels in recruitment interviews, which is now operating in many US states such as California and appears already to be operating very effectively there to stop the importation of gender pay gaps from the external market;
  • Better pay and conditions for keyworkers, for example in the care sector.

I noted that the Committee might also want to recommend that to celebrate 10 years after the last major piece of equality legislation, the 2010 Equality Act, parliament finally implements Section 106 of the Act which mandates political parties to publish diversity data for their candidate and MP selection processes.

Encouraged by government, employers similarly already have many of the processes and tools, from job evaluation to talent management,  to deliver their gender equality ambitions into practice, as well as excellent resources from the IPA, CIPD and other reputable organisations to assist them. What’s needed now is the bravery and the will.


A Brave New World of Gender Equality

‘Brave New World- gender and Covid 19’ was the optimistic title of one of the excellent panel sessions I took part in on a recent digital conference. Is the future heralded in the title likely to be a the nirvana of true ‘gender equality’? Or closer to the nightmare of an exploited race of underlings described in Aldous Huxley’s novel?

On 1 October 2020, the UN General Assembly held a High-Level meeting on the theme, ‘Accelerating the realisation of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls’. The UK government needs to do the same; and follow it up with immediate action on social and economic fronts, finally to start seriously breaking down the ‘say/do’ gap on gender equality that is still evident and unfortunately enhanced by recent events in UK society, our economy and in many of our employers.

Like Linda Scott and Rebecca Solnit, I am even more optimistic after my Commons’ Committee appearance and the reaction to Stella Creasey’s bill, which is supported by a petition signed by 55,000 of us. As Solnit put it some months ago,

‘Ordinary life before the pandemic was already (one of)… exclusion for too many, an obscenity of inequality. It is too soon to know what will emerge from this emergency, but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it. It is, I believe, what many of us are preparing to do.’

I am, the IPA are, and I hope parliament and the government, and you and your employer, are too. And please sign the equal pay petition at:

Dr Duncan Brown is Visiting Professor at the University of Greenwich and Principal Associate of the IES