Empowering Employment Rights is a content collaboration between Sophie Clyde-Smith and Emily Chalkey, Associate Solicitor.
Through this platform, Emily will be providing up to date and researched insights and advice on employment law, sex discrimination, the gender pay gap and gender imbalance. Our goal is to raise awareness of these subjects and to empower individuals affected by discrimination by educating them.


Coronavirus and Working Women

As the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown on the UK workforce unfold, evidence is arising that working women are being disproportionately impacted.  The suspension of gender pay gap reporting, combined with the way that roles undertaken by women face higher rates of furlough or redundancy risk setting back progress towards workplace gender equality. Further impacts of coronavirus upon childcare and maternity issues pose particular challenges for female workers and risk putting them at a disadvantage. Therefore, as lockdown in the UK eases and more people return to work, it is an important time for employers to be aware of these issues, and for working women to understand their legal rights. 


Gender Pay Gap Reporting

During March, in the height of the pandemic in the UK, the government announced a suspension of compulsory gender pay gap reporting. This is the first time since 2017 that companies employing more than 250 workers have not had to report figures relating to the pay of men and women on a mandatory basis. The decision was taken by the government in recognition of the unprecedented uncertainty and pressure faced by UK businesses as a result of coronavirus in the run up to the deadline on 5 April. Employers remained welcome to report on a voluntary basis but only half did, 26% of which reported before the suspension announcement. 

With the 2020 deadline for gender pay gap reporting now passed, and increasing signs that the wages of women will be hit hardest by coronavirus, next years’ gender pay gap reporting will be even more important to allow comparison in the wake of the pandemic. 


Childcare

The impacts of coronavirus upon childcare for working women are twofold. As many as 97% of childcare workers are female, and as a number of these businesses have been forced to close due to lockdown restrictions, these workers have been temporarily furloughed or made permanently redundant. Meanwhile, with schools and nurseries still closed to many children, additional childcare responsibilities are more likely to fall upon women, despite any requirements to work from home or continue attending work in key worker roles. While even at the height of lockdown the children of key workers were entitled to childcare in schools, some schools were overwhelmed and unable to provide enough places. 

Longer term, this raises concerns that if childcare demand cannot be met, due to fewer places or future periods of lockdown, the cost of childcare will be driven up to obstructive levels and discourage women in particular from working. Increased focus on childcare, as well as the additional caring needs of the elderly at particular risk during the pandemic, highlights the importance of employers reasonably considering all requests for flexible working. Greater flexibility in working hours, as well as the option to work remotely, facilitates care giving in conjunction with work, for example enabling working parents to take their children to school.


Furlough

While the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was implemented in March to protect jobs in all businesses adversely effected by coronavirus, the media have reported that the statistics now show that women are more likely to have been furloughed. This is partly because some of the sectors that employ the most women such as retail and hospitality have been specifically impacted by closures during lockdown. However, some commentators argue that when faced with the decision of which staff to furlough, employers may consciously or unconsciously choose women. This could be linked to the assumption that working mothers might prefer to be at home at a time when securing childcare is a particular challenge. However, with many furloughed workers facing a 20% cut in wages, or a cap of wages at £2,500 per month, the higher proportion of women furloughed equates to a higher proportion of women having their income reduced. 

With the introduction of the flexible furlough scheme, employers now have the option to bring furloughed staff back to work on a part-time basis, while still receiving government support for wages during periods not worked. All workers returning to work under flexible furlough are entitled to be paid in full for the hours they do work.


Redundancy 

While the furlough scheme aimed to provide long-term job security with short-term government support, many employers are already warning that business as usual will not return in time for when the scheme tapers from the end of July and closes completely at the end of October. If this is the case, redundancies are a very real possibility. 

For women who make up a higher proportion of furloughed workers, this could equate to women accounting for a higher proportion of redundancies. Some employers may feel that, in the face of financial pressure caused by coronavirus, they have no choice but to restructure workforces and cut headcount. However, some commentators state that women, and in particular mothers, fare less well in redundancy situations compared to their male or non-parent counterparts. All employees involved in a redundancy process have the right to a fair and objective selection procedure and to discriminate against an employee on the ground of sex is illegal under the Equalities Act 2010. However, there is concern that in times of financial crisis, employers revert to old assumptions that mothers could be less committed at work and more distracted by their additional responsibilities and are therefore selected for redundancy more readily. 


Pregnancy & Maternity

The UK government classes pregnant women as clinically vulnerable to coronavirus and therefore advises they stay at home as much as possible and take particular care to socially distance. There is evidence to suggest that pregnant women may be more likely to suffer severe symptoms of coronavirus, especially in the third trimester. Pregnant women told to shield, for example those with congenital or acquired heart disease, should not be forced to go to work and, if they are unable to work from home, are eligible to be furloughed under the coronavirus job retention scheme. 


Opportunity

Some of the changes experienced by the UK workforce caused by coronavirus could have a positive impact upon women working in some industries. Widespread calls for people to work from home during lockdown have forced employers, that may previously have doubted whether working remotely was a viable option, to at least trial it on a temporary basis. It is hoped that, for businesses that do survive or thrive in lockdown, that the choice to work from home more frequently will be supported in the longer term and that employers will have fewer reasons to reject flexible working requests. Greater flexibility in working hours and location will help to support both men and women in caring responsibilities, whilst also remaining in work. Furthermore, in instances where both parents are working from home and children of the family have been unable to attend school, there is evidence to suggest that working fathers have spent more time with their children in lockdown than previously, for example for home schooling. It is hoped that, having had this time together, working fathers in particular will be more aware of what they have previously missed out on by working away from home and being less involved in childcare. This may lead to increased requests for flexible working and shared parental leave in the future from working fathers, and in return, a more even split in the care of children.

 

If you have been adversely impacted at work due to the coronavirus pandemic and need employment law advice please contact Emily Chalkley Senior Associate at Charles Russell Speechlys at Emily.chalkley@crsblaw.com