Why coronavirus could reverse progress on closing the gender pay gap

Bangladeshi garment workers make protective suit at a factory amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 31, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain - RC21VF95QG3M

"We really need to work on the gender biases or the stereotypes that prevent equal sharing of care." Image: REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Christine Murray
Reporter, Thomson Reuters
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  • COVID-19 is changing economies by forcing companies to cut pay for low-paid sectors as staff are laid off, and many women are forced to look after children or elderly relatives.
  • The economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic could result in more than 25 million job losses, according to the ILO.
  • Many of these jobs will be low-paid, part-time jobs, of which women have a large share.

Advances in closing the worldwide gender pay gap are at risk of being reversed by the coronavirus, experts and advocates warn, as women take time off work to care for others and the low-paid sectors they dominate cut back hours and staff.

Women earn about a fifth less money than men around the world, reflecting factors from motherhood and employment in lower-wage jobs to stereotypes in promotion decisions, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The wage gap has been narrowing, but at the current rate it could still take 70 years to reach gender parity, according to U.N. Women.

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Women earn about a fifth less money than men around the world. Image: PayScale

The gap could increase this year as women are likely to be disproportionately affected by home responsibilities in quarantine and see their lower-wage jobs disappear, said Anita Bhatia, assistant Secretary General and deputy executive director of the United Nations' women's agency.

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"Women will end up bearing a big brunt," she said.

"We have a lot of very supportive men in society but not enough, and we really need to work on the gender biases or the stereotypes that prevent equal sharing of care."

In Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) nations, which are mostly developed countries in Europe, the gender pay gap fell to almost 13% in 2017 from nearly 18% in 2000.

PayScale, a Seattle-based maker of compensation software, said the U.S. gap has narrowed in recent years, but coronavirus could have the opposite effect as women are forced to take time off.

"This has the possibility ... that we could easily reverse that trend," said Sudarshan Sampath, the company's research director.

PayScale said it has found when women return to work after taking time off, they receive compensation offers that are on average 7% lower than other candidates for the same position.

In the United States, Tuesday is Equal Pay Day, symbolizing how far into the year the average woman must work to earn what the average man earned in the previous year.

The economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic could result in more than 25 million job losses, according to the ILO .

Catalyst, a U.S. nonprofit, said research shows when companies downsize, diversity becomes secondary, with women and people of color suffering the most.

The group's Canada director Tanya van Biesen said she feared progress made in recent decades could be lost because hard-hit sectors like hospitality and travel have large female workforces.

"I am so afraid that this health crisis and ultimately economic crisis will cause us to lose the many gains that women at work have made," van Biesen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In a bid to ease paperwork for businesses at a time of economic pressure, Britain's government said they will not have to make their annual reports on their gender pay gaps this year.

But Sam Smethers, head of the British nonprofit Fawcett Society, said the one positive outcome for women with family responsibilities might be the normalization of remote and flexible working.

"We need to redesign the way we work," she said. "The coronavirus has forced our hand to do just that."

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