British working women at 'coronavirus crossroads'

Covid-19 brings opportunity and regression on workplace equality

A woman and a man studying.  The reality of social distancing affects the interior architectural designs of workspaces and academic areas.
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Covid-19 threatens to reverse decades of progress for working women while also causing a dramatic shift in culture that could help them thrive.

A report has found British women are at a "coronavirus crossroads" in the workplace.

The government should lock in the positive changes with a law requiring almost all jobs to allow flexible working, said the report, which was issued on Britain's Equal Pay Day - the date on which the gender pay gap means women effectively start working for free until the year-end.

"Throughout the last century, crises comparable to the pandemic have been forks in the path of history," said Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, a leading women's rights group which issued the report.

"The coronavirus crisis puts us at a crossroads again, and it is clear that this applies to the gender pay gap."

Covid-19 has disproportionately hit women's careers, with studies finding they are more likely to work in sectors badly impacted by the pandemic, and they are picking up a heavier load of unpaid childcare and chores than men.

Britain's gender gap in hourly pay narrowed to 11.5% in 2020 from 13.1% in 2019, according to the latest data, though the Fawcett Society said the figures do not reflect the fact that many women had cut their hours to do childcare during lockdown.

While the pandemic poses serious threats to women's workplace equality, the dramatic rise in home-working and flexible arrangements could benefit mothers who often struggle to combine work and childcare, Friday's report said.

There are also signs of progress in data showing that fathers doubled the amount of time they spent doing childcare under lockdown, though women were still doing more.

However, the report warned that women would only benefit if the government takes steps to cement in the positive changes and protect female workers from discrimination.

Meanwhile, UK finance minister Rishi Sunak plans to announce a squeeze on public sector pay to help bring government spending under control.

A three-year pay freeze could save the government £23bn by 2023, or £15bn if National Health Service workers are not included, according to a report from the Centre for Policy Studies.

The Young Women's Trust, a feminist organisation, called for action in response to the pandemic, including launching a state jobs and training programme for young women and requiring employers to publish redundancy data by gender.

Women's rights group Equality Now backed the calls for change, adding that black and other ethnic minority women were also being hit hard by the pandemic's economic fallout.

"Covid has shone a spotlight on equality disparities," said Alexandra Patsalides, a lawyer at the group.

"Now is the time for the government, policymakers and employers to truly revolutionise their policies and mechanisms so as to ensure greater opportunities and support to women from all backgrounds."