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COVID-19 Your workforce: a caution against putting equality on the backburner

27 March 2020. Published by Kelly Thomson, Partner and Rachel Pears, Inclusion & Diversity Lead / Internal Employment Counsel

UK business, like much of the rest of the world, is and will, for some time, remain firmly in the grip of COVID-19's tentacles.

Those tentacles are as long as they are numerous; their reach is far and their impact wide-ranging. We know, from the work we are doing day in day (and evening!) out with our clients that businesses are working round the clock to adapt to the changing world. For some that's about flexing to meet unprecedented product and service demands. For others that's being agile in the face of forced temporary shutdown. Many are grappling with transitioning to an entirely home working model for perhaps the first time. There is no doubt that, for all businesses, there is painstaking work to be done and difficult decisions to be made. At times, this work will be (or at least it will feel) all-consuming for many of us.

It is against this background that, on 24th March, the Government announced that it will not be taking action against any employer who fails to publish their annual gender pay gap report this year. In a joint statement, Minister for Women & Equalities, Liz Truss, and EHRC Chair, David Isaac, said: “We recognise that employers across the country are facing unprecedented uncertainty and pressure at this time. Because of this we feel it is only right to suspend enforcement of gender pay gap reporting this year.”

It is superficially tempting to regard this as an entirely sensible measure. After all, as we said, business is already overloaded dealing with all things Covid-19 related. Employers need this breathing space to concentrate on bigger business priorities, don't they?

But let's pause and reflect on that for a moment.

First, and this is a point of detail but an important one. The deadline for gender pay gap reporting is 30 March for public sector employers and 4 April for private sector employers. The suspension announcement, therefore, came only (respectively) 4 and 9 business days before the deadline. Realistically then, how much pressure has this released for business? Don't forget that only those with 250 or more employees would be obligated to report anyway. And remember that many of those have, already, reported. A great many of those who are yet to report will have their data ready (or very nearly ready) to go anyway. So, for many businesses, all this announcement does is permit them to take the data they have already collected and analysed and put it away in a drawer, rather than publish it next week. 

Bearing in mind that gender pay gap reporting is a tool entirely aimed at improving workplace gender equality, what message does this announcement send? Perhaps, the message is that gender equality is not business critical but is, simply, a "nice to have"? Is the message that, if we're honest, we do think that government and business should support gender parity but only when the rest of the house is in order and there is time to spare for such extra-curricular issues? Whatever the intended message, the announcement on this law sits in stark contrast with the Government's position on filing of company accounts: "If, immediately before the filing deadline, it becomes apparent that accounts will not be filed on time due to your company being affected by Coronavirus (COVID-19), you may make an application to extend the period allowed for filing…If you do not apply for an extension and your accounts have been filed late, an automatic penalty will be imposed. The registrar has very limited discretion not to collect a penalty."

Caution: this may well be a difficult road to reverse back from once travelled. Warnings are already being raised about the likely disproportionate economic impact of this crisis on women. This is due to a combination of factors, including sector and role distribution and the demographical reality of caring responsibilities. Existing gender gaps will be exacerbated, including by the choices families are forced to make. Shouldn't these impacts be factored into the policy making process; not left for another day when there is more time but, by when, the damage may already be done? As this article in The Atlantic suggests, we should try to learn the lessons from previous public health crises, quoting Julia Smith, a health-policy researcher at Simon Fraser University, who told The New York Times: Everybody’s income was affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa,” but “men’s income returned to what they had made pre-outbreak faster than women’s income.

So, before your organisation decides to take advantage of the suspension of mandatory gender pay gap reporting, and to mothball your own reporting this year, do first consider whether this really is the right thing to do for your business and your people. What will you actually gain from not reporting next week? What might you lose?