Beyond lockdown: Has coronavirus widened the gender wage gap in your business?

Wednesday June 3, 2020

The Government’s emergency payment schemes have provided immense support to Irish businesses and their employees throughout the coronavirus pandemic. But with over a million people now receiving state income support, how many will be returning to work? And what could it mean for the future of our working population?

Forced business closures and a reduced demand for certain products and services could instigate a second wave of redundancies. Some employers will have to make difficult but crucial decisions about their future staffing levels. The government’s roadmap details a phased reopening of society and businesses, but with restrictions still in place, many employers are going to need to conduct a workforce review sooner rather than later.

Have Irish women been disproportionately affected?

A recent study in the UK by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that working mothers are 14% more likely to be furloughed through the government’s job retention scheme than fathers. They are also 47% more likely to have permanently lost their job or resigned as a result of coronavirus.

What about Ireland? Certain socio-economic factors point towards a very similar situation. Women are one group who work predominantly in the sectors worst hit by the pandemic. It is also the case that working mothers are more likely to pick up extra childcare responsibilities since schools have been closed. Adding to this, working fathers who want to help take care of the kids, can experience bias and have their requests for part-time or flexible working rejected without careful consideration.

Without action, the lasting impact of coronavirus could reverse the significant efforts of women’s rights groups over the years to close the gender wage gap. The Gender Information Bill was expected to make progress and come into force this year but lapsed with the dissolution of the Dáil and Seanead.

Understanding the gender pay gap

The gender wage gap can often be confused with equal pay, but it’s important to note that they are not the same.

Unequal pay for a man or woman doing the same job is illegal under the Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015. But due to other factors, such as an under-representation of women in certain sectors or higher paying roles, or an expectation for women to stay at home with the family, a gender wage gap exists in Ireland.

A wage gap can not only affect the well-being of those who are earning less. It can also impact wider business. Equal gender representation is an important contributor to an inclusive workplace culture and research has shown gender-equal businesses have a better chance of cultivating a happier, more productive workforce.

How to repair the damage

What can employers do to reduce the gender wage gap during a time of unprecedented circumstances like a pandemic? Many businesses are going to look different as a result of coronavirus. Certain business functions will need to be reviewed. But when following best practice HR, reducing the gender wage gap should happen organically, no matter the external circumstances.

By following fair procedures, employers can make unbiased decisions that ensure the best people remain in place to take their company forward. When deciding who to lay off or be made redundant, a fair procedure involves consultation with employees and focuses on key factors such as skills, experience, performance and aptitude.

If after doing this there is still a gender wage gap, start looking from within your business to see what else can be done. Policies that ensure equal opportunities in recruitment, employee retention and training can help. Additionally, a welcome approach to flexible working will see good employees stay with you for longer as they feel supported with their work-life balance.

Flexibility through parental leave

Progress was made last year for the flexibility needs of working parents with the extension to unpaid parental leave under the Parental Leave (Amendment) Act 2019. A further four weeks will be added this September taking the entitlement to 26 weeks for parents of children up to the age of 12.

This enhanced leave entitlement can help parents to retain employment through the coronavirus crisis and be a positive step towards repairing the widened wage gap if father’s flexibility needs are met with understanding.

If you would like to know more about leave entitlements, flexible working or how to reduce the gender wage gap in your business, contact us today. We’ll advise you on best practice HR by telling you what you can do rather than what you can’t.

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