It falls on a different day every year.

 

The day on which women can effectively shut their wallets, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be filling them comparative to men, no matter how hard they work for the rest of the year. Yesterday was equal pay day. Our 83p on man’s £1 brought us to this weekend. From today, we’re all working for free.

 

 

It’s bad enough that every year we’re expected to sigh and accept this. But this year, the injury comes with a supersized side helping of insult. For according to leaks from Westminster, the UK government – which this week found an extra £16 billion behind the sofa to increase defence spending – is about to impose pay restraints on the public sector.

 

That’s right. We’ve got extra money for tanks, but not for teachers.

 

Public service

 

So, why is this leak particularly relevant this weekend?

 

Well, two thirds of public sector employees are women. In the UK, 34 per cent of employed women work in the public sector, compared to 18.4 per cent of men. A public sector pay freeze, which is what we’re now expecting the government to announce this coming week, hits women the hardest. The same women who just yesterday were being faced with a barrage of new reports examining the state of the gender pay gap in the UK.

 

In case the very existence of Equal Pay Day wasn’t indicator enough, spoiler alert – the gap’s still a chasm.

 

 

According to Labour, 8.5 million women working today will never receive equal pay. Meanwhile, The Fawcett Society, which calculates where Equal Pay Day falls each year, said its shift back in the calendar in 2020 is far from a reason to celebrate – rather, the marginal reduction in mean pay gap (from 13.1 per cent last year to 11.5 per cent in 2020), is largely down to gaps in employee data gathering due to the pandemic.

 

While coronavirus is getting blamed for a lot this year, it’s really done a number on women. Here, a Fawcett Society survey of 8,425 UK adults, released for Equal Pay Day, reveals one third of working women have lost work or hours because of pandemic-related childcare issues. Now, 43 per cent of working women, and 50 per cent of black and minority ethnic working women, are worried about their jobs, by comparison to 35 per cent of white working men.

 

Sam Smethers, the chief executive of the Fawcett Society, says the UK is now at a “coronavirus crossroads” on the path towards gender equality. “The second world war gave birth to the welfare state; the winter of discontent led to a new Thatcherite era. The coronavirus crisis puts us at a crossroads again, and it is clear that this applies to the gender pay gap.”

 

 

She says the gains made in the past 50 years now risk being eroded by the childcare crisis, with more women than men furloughed in every industry surveyed, and 36 per cent of young women working in industries shut down by the pandemic. To look at that picture and see the priority as increased spending for defence, she says, is to ignore the needs of working families.

 

“More guns and bullets won’t help working parents,” she adds. “We urgently need a properly funded childcare infrastructure to enable parents to work and grow our economy out of the pandemic.”

 

A game of dominoes

 

Throughout 2020, while the role of women in plugging childcare gaps has been largely ignored by the government, one thing that has been celebrated is the role of the public sector in getting us through.

 

But while Rishi Sunak is widely expected to spare NHS frontline workers from any renewed pay restraints, lest he face a huge public furore, a host of other workers critical to the fight against COVID stand to be hard hit.

 

 

 “The government must do what’s right next week and announce the wage rise staff have more than earned. Anything less risks destroying morale when the entire country is counting on them,” argues Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison. Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, adds: “Freezing their pay is no way to reward key workers for their service. Working people must not bear the burden of the crisis.”

 

Still, with borrowing set to soar to more than £400 billion this year, clearly savings have to be made somewhere. Hence the suggestion, also leaked and not yet confirmed, that the government may look to row back on its manifesto commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas aid – yet another way in which the world’s poorest could find themselves paying the highest price for the pandemic.

 

Moving forward

 

While the government has so far refused to comment on whether it will indeed push ahead with public sector pay restraint or overseas aid cuts, preferring instead to trumpet its ambition for us to become Europe’s leading naval power, it did take a moment to proclaim the importance of gender equality at work.

 

Critically though, it once again passed the buck for change to private sector employers. “As we look to unite the country and recover from the pandemic it is key that companies embrace flexible working initiatives which have a positive impact on recruitment and the productivity of staff,” said a spokesman for the Equalities Office.

 

One can only wonder whether they’ve looked at the flexibility gap, leaving women bearing the brunt of the coronavirus crisis already. But if we’re looking to private employers to lead the way here, it’s worth paying attention to those that increased their gender pay gap this year. From EasyJet’s 54.7 per cent to HSBC Bank’s 68.5 per cent bonus gap, examples of the work still needing to be done are not hard to find.

 

 

“Women are still being undervalued, underpaid and to add insult to injury, there is little if any progress on the gender pay and bonus gaps,” said Dr Wanda Wyporska, the executive director of The Equality Trust yesterday.

 

The government still has a few days left until it delivers its ‘mini-budget’ to the nation. Perhaps, there’s still time for them to curb their Action Man fantasies and start taking action for working families…

 

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