The pandemic is predicted to have a huge impact on the gender pay gap of many businesses, and this year’s reports will help measure to what extent.

Although the majority of employees who have been furloughed will not feature in the reports, HMRC statistics released in September 2020 show that generally speaking more women than men have been furloughed. This is because a far higher proportion of women are employed in the sectors most affected by lockdown: hospitality, tourism, education and recreation.

Women are also more likely to have been affected by school and nursery closures, and the fact that they are generally employed in part-time and/or in lower-paid roles. Given these factors, it is probable that we will eventually see an increase in the average pay differential.

Gender pay gap reporting is, therefore, more important than ever. Businesses need to keep their best people – regardless of gender. Additionally, with many women now out of work and seeking re-employment, employers have an opportunity to showcase their efforts to combat pay inequality and attract new talent. The only way to do this is to ensure a level playing field for everyone to succeed.

Flexible working

In a survey of almost 1,000 directors in October 2020, the IoD found that nearly 75% of them planned to continue using working from home after the pandemic. Over 1 in 5 businesses estimated their workplace usage to be significantly lower.

Working from home provides flexibility which benefits working parents. The Women and Equalities Committee’s most recent report on the effect of Coronavirus on women ‘Unequal impact? Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact highlighted the importance of this option for women, recommending the removal of the requirement to have been employed for 26 weeks before being eligible to request flexible working. They argue that the pandemic has clearly demonstrated that it is unhelpful and unnecessary.

Businesses should consider fully utilising flexible working to attract and retain employees post-lockdown. If they decide not to continue, they should ensure there is a genuine business need to restrict this flexibility, and that women are not disproportionately affected by this decision.

Wellbeing

Employers have a responsibility to not only trust their employees to work away from the office, but to be inclusive and supportive – particularly when dealing with the effects of lockdown fatigue. The PWC Women in Work Index 2021 found that women face an ‘unequal burden of unpaid care and domestic work’.

Businesses should therefore be putting effective support in place, for employees who choose to work from home and juggle completing a full day’s work with caring responsibilities, homeschooling, and domestic tasks. This should include access to online mental health support, and considering whether employees could flex the hours that they work.

Presenteeism

Presenteeism also has a detrimental effect on employee mental health. In a 2020 global study by the ADP Research Institute, over 50% of employees surveyed had felt pressure to come into work during the pandemic, despite stay at home guidance. One in five in the UK still feels this way. Reasons for this include many employees believing that they need to be ‘seen’ in the workplace if they are to progress. Additionally, employees working from home may have less access to networking and team-building opportunities and support from colleagues and line managers.

Some of the ways that businesses can tackle presenteeism include ensuring that employees have good access to online communication and support channels, ensuring career progression schemes are not focussed solely on workplace presence and give appropriate credit to homeworkers, and considering alternative career pathways for homeworkers.

Sexual harassment

One of the other effects of the pandemic is that some workplace issues, such as sexual harassment, have received less attention. With fewer employees attending the workplace there is a risk that employees have experienced an increase in incidents of sexual harassment. This might be because harassers are less likely to be caught or because they have more opportunities for online harassment.

As we come out of lockdown businesses should, as a minimum, revisit their anti-bullying and anti-harassment procedures, and ensure that all parties are aware of these and of how concerns should be raised.

The Women Equalities Committee calls for the Government to recognise the effect the pandemic has had on women. Businesses should take the lead on this within their workforces. Doing so will help them widen and improve their talent pool and the diversity of their workforce. It is also crucial to ensure that female employees are not facing inequality and missing opportunities for career development at a time of huge disruption to both personal and professional life.