Equal Pay Day 2021: A look at BME women’s inequality at work

From today – Equal Pay Day – women are now effectively working for free until the end of the year. New data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that Scotland’s gender pay gap has narrowed slightly from 10.4% to 10.1%, suggesting women’s workplace inequality remains stubbornly entrenched. As with last year, the data comes with reliability warnings due to the impact of COVID on the sample size of employer pay data. Further COVID-related factors such as the recent end of furlough and the impact of labour market shortages also won’t be reflected in gender pay gap data for some time.

Despite a continued lack of clarity as to how the pandemic has impacted the gender pay gap, our analysis has shown that the economic impact of the Covid crisis has been borne by women, with different groups of women affected in different ways due to intersecting inequalities. In particular, Black and minority ethnic (BME) women have faced multiple challenges in employment during the pandemic as a result of their pre-existing inequality in the labour market. Equal Pay Day is much earlier in the year for BME women, and the pandemic is likely to have exacerbated this trend.

BME women are significantly more likely to be in precarious work which has put them at greater risk of job disruption over the course of the crisis. Evidence highlights that those on zero-hour contracts and in temporary employment have suffered greater falls in earnings and hours over the pandemic than those on more secure contracts. In addition, occupational segregation is particularly acute for BME women, who are more likely than women as a whole to be employed in shutdown sectors, including retail and hospitality, which means that BME women were more likely to have been furloughed, often on less than 100% of their already low pay. Ultimately, job disruption will have further threatened BME women’s financial security.

Inequality in employment was a reality for BME women long before the pandemic. BME women still face deeply rooted prejudices and racism in their lives, which create and sustain workplace inequality. For example, being in the minority in a majority-white country means they are passed over for opportunities, as people are more likely to hire or promote someone who they see as ‘like them’, known as ‘affinity bias’. BME women are also over-represented in low-paid, lower status occupations such as social care. For BME women, these inequalities overlap to create an ever larger set of barriers that see them facing racist and sexist attitudes and behaviours, and employment policies and processes that sustain their inequality at work and in the wider world. Close the Gap’s Still Not Visible researchfound that almost three quarters (72%) of BME women in Scotland have faced racism, discrimination, racial prejudice and/or bias in the workplace.

Understanding the causes of BME women’s inequality in employment is critical to finding solutions and to driving change. We cannot do this without good data. Gender pay gap reporting for large private and third sector organisations has been in place since 2018, and employers have just published their third set of gender pay gap data. In late 2018 to early 2019 the UK Government undertook a public consultation on ethnicity pay gap reporting, however this is yet to translate into concrete action. The report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities encouraged employers to publish their ethnicity pay gaps, but recommended that this remain voluntary.

We know this doesn’t work. Employers are extremely unlikely to take action on inequality at work unless they are compelled to do so. We echo the joint call made by the TUC, EHRC and CBI for mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting and welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to make publishing ethnicity pay gaps a requirement of the Public Sector Equality Duty. The Scottish Government also plans to publish a ethnicity pay gap strategy and we’ve called for this to respond adequately to BME women’s inequality in employment.

In addition to improving the range of intersectional gender-disaggregated data, we also need employers to take strong action on inequality in the workplace. We’re currently analysing this year’s gender pay gap reporting data, but we know from previous years that less than a third of employers published actions to tackle their pay gaps, and only 4% had provided evidence of steps they had taken. If pay gap reporting is going to make a difference, it must also be backed by mandatory action plans for employers on both their gender and ethnicity pay gaps.

The causes of the gender pay gap go far beyond the issue of pay. They include a lack of flexible working, women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care, biased and untransparent recruitment, development and progression practices, male-oriented workplace cultures and occupational segregation. These are all mutually reinforcing and are further compounded by discrimination and inequality rooted in racism. They affect all women, but BME women are particularly impacted.

We need to see decisive action from employers to tackle this. Using the findings of our research and the support of experts working on race equality, we have developed a resource for employers to help them address BME women’s inequality in the workplace. This includes guidance on understanding and improving workplace culture, ensuring equality and diversity are central to recruitment, and dealing with reports of discrimination and harassment. These are supported by tailored resources for people in key roles to enable employers to drive change at all levels. We’ll be launching this in the new year – keep an eye on the blog for more information.

In the coming months, Close the Gap will also be publishing the findings of our assessment of Scottish employers’ gender pay gap reporting and our annual gender pay gap analysis report.

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