The coronavirus job retention scheme has provided an immense level of support and a much-needed lifeline to UK businesses. It has undoubtedly helped to keep many people employed throughout the pandemic. But of the 8.4 million people currently on furlough leave, how many of them will be returning to work? And what could it mean for the future of our working population?

Forced business closures and a reduced demand for certain products and services could instigate a second wave of redundancies. Some employers will have to make difficult but crucial decisions about their future staffing levels. The job retention scheme is due to end in October. However, a workforce review may be needed sooner as employers’ contributions are being introduced from August.

Women have been disproportionately affected

A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that working mothers are 14% more likely to have been furloughed than fathers. They are also 47% more likely to have permanently lost their job or resigned.

It has been reported that women are one group who work predominantly in the sectors worst hit by the pandemic. It is also the case that working mothers are more likely to pick up extra childcare responsibilities due to school closures. Adding to this, working fathers who want to help take care of the kids, can experience bias and have their requests for flexible working rejected without careful consideration.

Without action, the lasting impact of coronavirus could reverse the significant efforts of women’s rights groups over the years to close the gender wage gap. Since 2017, businesses with more than 250 employees have had to publish their gender pay gap data by law. However they will not be required to do so in 2020.

Understanding the gender pay gap

The gender wage gap can often be confused with equal pay, but it’s important to note that they are not the same.

Unequal pay for a man or woman doing the same job has been illegal since 1970 under the Equal Pay Act. But due to other factors, such as an under-representation of women in certain sectors or higher paying roles, or an expectation for women to stay at home with the family, a gender wage gap exists in the UK.

A wage gap can not only affect the well-being of those who are earning less. It can also impact wider business. Equal gender representation is an important contributor to an inclusive workplace culture. Gender-equal businesses have a better chance of cultivating a happier, more productive workforce.

How to repair the damage

What can employers do to reduce the gender wage gap during a time of unprecedented circumstances like a pandemic? Many businesses are going to look different as a result of coronavirus. Certain business functions will need to be reviewed. But when following best practice HR, reducing the gender wage gap should happen organically, no matter the external circumstances.

By following fair procedures, employers can make unbiased decisions that ensure the best people remain in place to take their company forward. When deciding who to place on furlough leave or be made redundant, a fair procedure involves consultation with employees and focuses on key factors such as skills, experience, performance and aptitude.

If after doing this there is still a gender wage gap, start looking from within your business to see what else can be done. Policies that ensure equal opportunities in recruitment, employee retention and training can help. Additionally, a welcome approach to flexible working will see good employees stay with you for longer as they feel supported with their work-life balance.

More flexibility with part-time furlough

We were pleased to hear the Chancellor’s announcement last week that the job retention scheme is becoming more flexible and will allow part-time furlough. This means that employees can work part-time and be furloughed for the days of the week they are not working. This is good news for both employers and employees and a positive step towards repairing the widened wage gap.

If you would like to know more about the coronavirus job retention scheme, part-time furlough, flexible working or how to reduce the gender wage gap in your business, contact us today. We’ll advise you on best practice HR by telling you what you can do rather than what you can’t.