In recent years multiple jurisdictions have taken significant strides to narrow the global gender pay gap (GPG), including efforts to increase female labour market participation at more senior levels. Ireland published the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill 2019 (the GPG Bill) and was taking steps to follow the UK’s introduction of mandatory GPG reporting in 2017.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone, emerging evidence suggests that it is having a disproportionate impact on female employees. McKinsey & Co. recently reported that women globally have been 1.8 times as likely as men to lose their jobs due to COVID-19. Women do three times as much unpaid care work (of children and older relatives) than men and this “double-shift” has been exacerbated by the pandemic-related shut-down of creches and schools. Viewed through a gender lens, these side-effects of the pandemic have the potential to have long-term effects for gender equality within the workplace.
Disproportionate Impact on Women
- Access to Employment / Job Loss
McKinsey & Co. estimate that women’s jobs are 19% more at risk, with women overrepresented in the economic sectors worst hit by COVID-19. Many of these jobs cannot be done remotely and restrictions on movement and social distancing requirements have resulted in significant job losses.
- Unpaid Care Work
The International Labour Organization concluded that women bear the burden of 75% of all unpaid care work, and this has increased with the closure of schools, more time spent at home, and the heightened care needs of older persons.
- Underrepresentation of Women in Leadership Roles
The BBC recently reported on a US study that found that while shareholders are happy to support female directors when business is going well, they are more likely to withdraw their support for female candidates in times of crisis. With companies rolling back on diversity and inclusion, opportunities for women to take up leadership roles may decline. In turn, companies may place themselves at a disadvantage in terms of resilience and the ability to recover from the current crisis by limiting their access to diverse skills, leadership styles and perspectives.
- Gender Pay Gap
Significantly, the GPG should not be confused with the concept of equal pay for equal work. Rather the GPG is the difference between the average hourly pay of women compared with men within an organisation, such that it captures whether women are represented evenly across an organisation in terms of seniority level. According to the latest Eurostat figures, the GPG in Ireland is 13.9%, which, while lower than the EU average of 16.7%, leaves significant room for improvement. With women’s jobs more at risk and workplaces re-opening on a phased basis, efforts to narrow the existing GPG may take a backseat.
Tackling Gender Inequality in the Workplace
The ‘Programme for Government – Our Shared Future’ (the Programme) contains commitments aimed at enhancing gender equality in the workplace by addressing some of the inequalities faced by women through policy changes and increased supports for women who are either in, or seeking, employment. The Programme focuses on key areas such as:
- Flexible Working Arrangements
Many businesses have adopted wide-scale flexible working options for the first time. The Programme commits to enabling increased remote, flexible and hub-working arrangements to support families in their parenting and childcare choices, and to promote better work-life balance, higher female-labour-market participation, less commuting, and greater regional balance. It further commits to working with the childcare sector to introduce more flexibility in childcare settings.
- Gender Pay Gap Reporting
The aim of the GPG Bill is to introduce mandatory reporting on the GPG. Initially, companies with 250 or more employees would be required to make these disclosures, but over time it would apply to any company with 50 or more employees. The GPG Bill also required companies to publish their reasons for the GPG and the measures being taken to reduce or eliminate that gap.
While the GPG Bill lapsed in January 2020 with the dissolution of the Dáil and Seanad, the Programme commits to introducing legislation requiring the publication of the GPG by large companies.
- Increased participation and leadership
The Programme commits to acting on the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality, seeking to ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in the workplace.
- Enhanced Access to Employment
The Programme also commits to publishing an updated ‘Apprenticeship Action Plan 2021 to 2025’ which will have specific targets for the uptake of apprenticeships by women, and further commits to continuing to increase the participation of women in apprenticeships and skills-based programmes.
In its April 2020 policy brief, The Impact of COVID-19 on Women (the UN Brief), the United Nations highlighted that a pandemic “amplifies and heightens all existing inequalities”. The UN Brief concluded that it is “crucial” that national responses place women’s inclusion, representation, rights, social and economic outcomes, equality and protection “at their centres if they are to have the necessary impacts”. The Programme, which also commits to the development and implementation of a new national strategy for women and girls, is in line with this approach.
The UN Brief predicts that while women will be “hardest hit by this pandemic”, they will also be the “backbone of recovery in communities”. While the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women from a labour market perspective, it also has the potential to disproportionately benefit women in the near future. While the concepts of remote and flexible working arrangements are not new, what is new is the ability of businesses to rapidly adapt and welcome such working arrangements almost overnight. This adjusted mindset and the erosion of the legacy stigma of “working from home”, represents an opportunity to pave the path for increasing female labour market representation – particularly in mid and senior roles – and support a positive step forward in narrowing the GPG. COVID-19, in accelerating employers’ willingness to embrace more flexible working arrangements, may ultimately fast-track measures required to address gender equality within the workplace.
The government’s three pronged approach, comprising the July Jobs Stimulus Package, the National Economic Plan and the Programme, includes a number of short-term quick fixes in addition to a commitment to wider and deeper reform of how we work and how employers and employees can work effectively in an evolved workplace without entirely sacrificing their work-life balance.
We will be following the government’s implementation of the Programme in the coming months and years.
We consider what the future in Ireland can and might look like in our new article series The Future of How Ireland Works. This article is Part 2 in the series, click the following link for The Future of How Ireland Works Part 1: The Programme for Government – Key Points for Employers and The Future of Work
Contributed by Órlaith Ní Mhadagáin, Darran Brennan