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Comment: Looking to a fairer future post-pandemic

Emily Sutherland

Understandably, fashion is not thinking about its gender pay gap amid the pandemic. But creating more equal workplaces must be part of the industry’s future after coronavirus. 

Deep in the grip of the coronavirus crisis, fashion retailers are in survival mode. Most are focused on simply riding out the coming weeks – or months – of lockdown and shuttered stores, but they should not forget the gender pay imbalance.

Reporting gender pay gap figures is, understandably, extremely low down on the fashion industry’s current list of priorities. Under legislation introduced in 2018, retailers with 250 employees or more originally had until 1 April to publish figures detailing their mean and median gender pay gaps.

Gender pay gap

That deadline has been suspended by the government in recognition of the unprecedented uncertainty and pressure facing employers. There is no expectation to report gender pay gap figures for 2019/20 and the usual penalties, which include unlimited fines, do not apply.

Suspending gender pay gap reporting was a sensible decision by the government – the current turbulence and mass furloughing means that most businesses, including retailers, would have been unable to collate the necessary data. However, this crisis does not mean that the issue of gender equality in fashion has gone away, nor that creating fairer workplaces is not an important concern.

Research by Drapers, published when last year’s gender pay gap figures were released, showed that women working in the fashion, footwear and accessories industry were paid a median average 92p for every £1 earned by a man in 2018/19 – the same as the previous year.

Our survey into gender equality in the workplace, also published last year, found archaic attitudes towards women were still prevalent in the sector. Almost half (48.4%) of respondents said they had encountered gender discrimination in their workplace, while more than a third (36%) said they had experienced inappropriate behaviour. Women reported repeated references to their looks, being dismissed as “emotional”, and inappropriate touching and leering.

In more stable times for the industry, retailers have told Drapers that collecting and analysing gender pay gap figures provides a valuable opportunity to take stock of gender diversity, and recognise issues such as the lack of women in senior roles and barriers to progression.

Retailers will be remembered and judged by their actions towards employees during the coronavirus pandemic

Fashion businesses have already been talking about making the world a kinder, fairer place throughout and on the other side of the coronavirus crisis. A multitude of big names have rushed to offer their support through initiatives such as discounts for NHS workers and large donations to charities.

The industry seems keen to do its bit, or – for those more cynically minded – to curry favour with consumers by being seen to do good. If retailers and brands are true to their word and do want to create a kinder world, this should extend to the treatment of not only women, but all minorities within their workplace.

Retailers will be remembered and judged by their actions towards employees and their wider communities during the coronavirus pandemic. This could accelerate a change that was already happening pre-crisis, towards principle-led shopping, where consumers choose to spend with businesses that best reflect their own morals and beliefs.

Gender pay gap reporting can be a very public measure of how businesses treat female employees and the opportunities for career progression.

There will be a time when coronavirus is behind the fashion industry. This challenging period can act as something of a reset button, forcing retailers to reassess every element of how they do business, from how best to serve customers to exploring new channels. Part of that reset should be thinking about building better, fairer working environments for all.  

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