What are the prospects for women in the workplace in 2021?

Big concerns have been raised that gender equality could go backwards as a result of Covid. With homeschooling likely to return in January, what can employers do to ensure progress made so far doesn’t go into reverse?

Two women doing a video interview on a laptop


As we prepare to enter 2021 and uncertainty persists about what will be happening with schools next month, an analysis revealed the long-term impact of caring responsibilities and other factors including bias on women’s earnings and prospects for women. According to analysis by Rest Less, women in their 50s and 60s have the highest gender pay gap. It shows that the median annual salary of women working full time in their 50s was 23% less than the median full-time salary of men in the same age group, with women in their 60s earning 25 per cent less.

It is no coincidence that the gender pay gap starts to widen when women hit their 30s and 40s. By their 50s and 60s, women are paying for earlier patterns of working, for instance, if they went part time or took a career break to look after children. Those women now in their 50s are my generation and many will have taken a career break when their children were young or gone back part time. The figures have changed over the years with more and more women continuing to work when their children are little for a number of reasons, including financial ones, a realisation of the longer-term impact on earnings and career aspirations and greater flexibility at work in part due to technological changes. But the figures for women in their 30s show that there is still a care pay gap, although this is not the sole reason for the pay gap.

When they get to their 50s and 60s women are also more likely to have responsibility for caring for partners or older relatives and this can be another reason for them dropping hours or dropping out of the workplace.

The pay gap is a complicated thing and involves everything from what sector and function women tend to work in to barriers to promotion and legacy pay issues [if your salary is based on what you earned previously]. For each industry and organisation there are also specific factors that affect pay. That is why more data is needed and why organisations need to do more than report the bald facts. Drilling down into the whys can be eye-opening and expose patterns of pay based on previous assumptions about gender which have become ‘the norm’ without being properly questioned, as many legal cases are finding.

It is interesting in looking back on the year’s events that one of the first actions taken on lockdown was the suspension of gender pay reporting. This was in part because the date for publishing figures was imminent, although most employers should have done the work by the time lockdown was announced. The suspension preceded by many days any recognition of the impact on women in particular of childcare problems. workingmums.co.uk received hundreds of emails in those first weeks from parents who were struggling, including key workers doing night shifts, in particular single mums. Childcare bubbles, for instance, did not become a thing until much later in the year. Furlough for childcare reasons was also late to the party, not promoted and left down to individual employers to agree – and our survey shows more didn’t agree to it than did.

Now, after months of children going in and out of isolation, we appear to be going back to yet more homeschooling, although this time with childcare bubbles. It is vital that employers take account of the impact of this on everything from productivity to career decisions and that they continue to monitor gender pay gaps and ensure that the pandemic does not set back all the tremendous work done to promote greater equality in the workplace.

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