We’re at a gender equality crossroads: which path will the government take? | Gender pay gap

There has been so much bleak news this year. Like many of us, I am feeling desperate for some positives to hold on to. But to be clear, announcing £16 billion on defence on international men’s day and then, on equal pay day, briefing a public-sector pay freeze for a mostly female labour force is not my idea of good news.

But there are signs of hope when it comes to women and equality. The UK is at a coronavirus crossroads and, with the right decisions, we could accelerate towards parity at work and at home; or, if we get it wrong, we could turn the clock back decades for women. Which path will the government take?

The shift to home working has been a game-changer for many employers. They are recognising that home working doesn’t undermine productivity but in fact enhances it. And many workers don’t want to go back to their old, office-based routine. But there are also many who cannot work from home because they are in a frontline job, because their employer won’t let them, or because working at home just isn’t practical for them.

This is why we need to embed a culture of flexibility that enables employees to flex their hours and/or their location. Legislating to make all jobs flexible by default, unless there is a good business reason not to, would really embed this change and enable many more workers to benefit.

Unpaid care work fell disproportionately on women’s shoulders even before the crisis, with mothers providing 118 minutes of care for children a day compared with 67 minutes provided by fathers. But the gap has widened during the pandemic, with school and nursery closures having a huge impact on working mothers in particular. Even though fathers have doubled the time they spend caring for children, mothers’ share of care has increased by more.

The reason for this inequality lies partly in the way parental leave is structured, with just two weeks of paid paternity leave for fathers compared with nine months’ paid maternity leave (plus three months unpaid) for mothers – most of which she can then choose to transfer to her partner. The presumption is that the mother is the primary carer. Instead we need to design a system that assumes equal responsibility in caring for children and creates a longer, better-paid period of leave reserved for fathers and second carers. This is a feature of the better performing parental leave systems around the world, and is long overdue in the UK.

The Black Lives Matter movement is having a profound impact on our society and driving an intersectional approach to equality. All the data clearly shows that minority-ethnic communities have been hit hardest by Covid, not only in terms of health and wellbeing but also economically, owing to existing poverty and structural inequalities. There are signs that message may be getting through, but it has yet to result in meaningful change.

The Fawcett Society’s 2017 Gender Pay Gap by Ethnicity report found that at 26%, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women experienced the biggest pay gap with white British men, and at 24% the pay gap black African women see had barely shifted in 20 years. That is why we are calling for gender pay gap reporting – currently suspended because of the Covid pandemic – to be strengthened and reintroduced, and for ethnicity pay reporting to be introduced at the same time.

We have all discovered how important caring roles are and why we must value them. So now must now see a corresponding investment in our social care and childcare infrastructure, valuing the care work that is done by the majority female labour force. As a minimum, we want to see all social care workers receive the real living wage together with improved terms and conditions; an end to precarious contracts; and entitlement to statutory sick pay.

Our childcare sector is in crisis: one in six providers may not be in business by Christmas, rising to one in four in more deprived areas. The government has baled out the railways but has yet to do the same for childcare providers. Yet childcare is as much a part of our infrastructure as our transport system – investing in it would generate a return to the exchequer and support economic recovery. The comprehensive spending review next week is the perfect opportunity for the chancellor to show us that he finally gets it, and will do what it takes for childcare provision. But will he?

Finally, on equal pay day we highlight the pay discrimination that still persists in our workplaces. Fifty years on from the Equal Pay Act, we are calling for women to have the right to know what male colleagues are earning if they believe there may be pay discrimination. Without it, they simply cannot achieve pay equality. We can emerge from this crisis and achieve a more gender-equal future, but it requires a government with the political will do to it.

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