Equal Pay Day 2020: Why it’s important to look beyond the headline figures

Equal Pay Day is the day from which women are effectively working for free for the rest of the year because of the gender pay gap. Of course it's much earlier in the year for Black and minority ethnic women and disabled women, who experience higher gender pay gaps.

New data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that Scotland’s gender pay gap has narrowed from 13.3% to 10.4%. This ostensibly suggests that progress on women’s workplace equality has been made. However, evidence from elsewhere shows otherwise, as women’s employment has been disproportionately negatively affected by COVID-19 in a range of significant ways.

While the latest data from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings shows a reduction in the gender pay gap, it comes with reliability warnings with a quarter of the usual sample of employer pay data missing and the impact of COVID-19 job disruption on this data remains unclear.

COVID-19 illuminates the challenges in accessing good quality gender-sensitive, sex-disaggregated labour market data. Intersectional labour market data remains almost entirely non-existent, which makes it extremely difficult to get a granular understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on different groups of women, and the effect on women’s and men’s labour market participation.

The data that is publicly available makes for a somewhat confusing picture. UK Government data relating to the Job Retention Scheme contains minimal gendered data, and the Scottish Government’s gendered data on job disruption is patchy at best. The data tells us that the picture on gender and furlough in Scotland is complicated, and constantly changing.

For example, the headline data shows that, overall, more male employees have been furloughed than female employees. However, since the 1st of July, more women have been furloughed than men across the UK which would imply that women have been furloughed for longer than men. The headline figures therefore mask the nuances of job disruption and furlough.

Moreover, ONS data shows a sharp increase in women working full-time. Compared to this time last year, 41,000 more women are working full-time which is likely to have a narrowing effect on the gender pay gap. By contrast, 27,000 fewer men are working full-time, and 11,000 more men are working part-time when compared with this time last year. The impact of changes in male working patterns on the gender pay gap will depend on whether more men are now earning lower part-time hourly rates, or merely working reduced hours on the same rate of hourly pay. This is unclear from the data. Regardless, men’s average hourly pay will also have been reduced as a result of furlough which will artificially deflate the overall gender pay gap figure temporarily.

The analysis which accompanies these data releases is not gendered, which not only creates an additional challenge in interpreting the data, but also serves to highlight the lack of gender analysis in labour market policymaking.

COVID-19 has had an unprecedented effect on the labour market, and women’s employment specifically, with the medium and long-term effects yet to be seen. This year’s gender pay gap underscores why it’s necessary to look beneath the headline figure. The reduction is very likely to be masking the relatively recent gendered effects of COVID-19 on women’s employment that will not yet be captured by the gender pay gap which is a lagging indicator.

Equal Pay Day once again highlights the importance of quality gender-sensitive, sex-disaggregated labour market data. In the coming weeks, Close the Gap will be publishing our annual analysis of gender pay gap statistics which will take a deeper dive into this year’s data. Meantime, you can read last year’s gender pay gap statistics paper here.

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