OPINION
04/04/2020 06:00 BST

Scrapping Gender Pay Gap Reporting Once Again Reveals The Government’s True Colours

2020 was supposed to be a year of great progress and change. We ended up with far worse than a nice, round number, writes Rachael Revesz.

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There is no expectation for companies to report their gender pay gap figures this year as the government tackles Covid-19.

During the pandemic, many anniversaries and life milestones have been lost. Among them was Equal Pay day on 31 March.

And in another parallel world, 4 April would have been the deadline for companies with over 250 employees to report their annual gender pay gap figures.

But with companies being granted ‘breathing space’ by the government to tackle Covid-19, there will be no expectation for companies to report this year. 

Some companies will still do it or have done it — for example, Verizon Media, the parent company of Huffington Post. But others won’t. The government called off obligatory reporting this year on 24th March, and only around a quarter of firms had already submitted their data. So what would the feet-draggers’ incentive be now? 

Data shows that companies are only transparent, by and large, when they are forced to be. The UK claims to have among the highest numbers of companies who report their gender pay gaps — then again, the UK is one of the only countries in the world to make companies publish that information. France has the world’s highest percentage of women on boards (44%) thanks to a 40% quota. Regulation works.

Five years ago, the proposal for pay gap reporting was merely percolating in the mind of former Minister for Women and Equalities Jo Swinson. Now her successor, Liz Truss, who pursues deregulation with religious zeal, seems to want to smash it to bits.

“We recognise that employers across the country are facing unprecedented uncertainty and pressure at this time,” she said in a joint statement with Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Chair David Isaac. “Because of this we feel it is only right to suspend enforcement of gender pay gap reporting this year.”

So, what is the great burden on companies that the government wants to avoid?

The EHRC online portal asks for 14 data points, including the mean and median gender pay gap in hourly pay, and the bonus gender pay gap. 

It’s the kind of information companies would be tracking anyway as 2020 marks the third year of the legislation. It only takes a few minutes to plug the numbers into the government portal.

It seems that removing the obligation to report just over a week before the deadline is more a question of re-prioritising and, dare I suggest it, advancing a certain agenda, rather than scrapping a relatively simple exercise for any company’s HR department. 

Dropping the obligation to report also reinforces the view that gender equality is last on a long list of priorities. Don’t even get me started on the fact that women’s work is fundamentally undervalued — just look at wages in nursing, teaching, pre-school education, cleaning, cashiers and retail workers. The allowance for carers, often a 24/7 job, is £66.15 a week.

It seems that removing the obligation to report just over a week before the deadline is more a question of re-prioritising and, dare I suggest it, advancing a certain agenda, rather than scrapping a relatively simple exercise for any company’s HR department.

Against that backdrop, the biggest effort the UK has made in recent years to reinforce the importance of equal pay — gender pay gap reporting — has now been thrown out the window.

Perhaps the rather dire financial straits of the EHRC are relevant here? Even before Boris Johnson had to go into self-isolation, the equalities body was underfunded: its budget has been slashed by two thirds since 2010. As a result, the EHRC had as many sharp teeth as a 17-year-old cat on a diet of meat paste to punish companies that filed after the deadline or submitted inaccurate or misleading data.

Very few companies have a strategy to close their pay gap. Some chuck money at the problem, hoping the gap will disappear, if only for a short while. Campaigners have long talked about turning data into action, but now we don’t even have the data. 

The absence of pay gap reporting might seem like a tiny blip compared to the bigger consequences of a global pandemic. “Furloughed” was not a word in most people’s vocabularies a few weeks ago. We have dashed hopes, and dreams, and paycheques. If we are lucky, the pandemic will only have stolen a year from our lives, but we will spend far longer making up for it, clawing back what we had already fought for and won. 

Companies and governments touted 2020 as a year of great progress in the realm of gender equality. The cynics thought that it would be no more than a nice, round number. What we’ve ended up with is much worse, and we will all pay for this in the long term. 

Rachael Revesz is Acting Opinion Editor for Huffington Post UK.