Women’s equality at risk of being put back 25 years by the pandemic

Currently at 15%, the gender gap still needs to be bridged, women’s conference is told

More than 50 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed, women at work and in retirement continue to face widespread discrimination – and the situation has worsened since the pandemic, UNISON’s annual women’s conference heard last week.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the gender pay gap currently stands at 15% for full-time workers and is much wider when employed part-time, as most women are.

Working years

Proposing a motion ‘gender pay justice for women workers’, Kate Ramsden of Scotland region (pictured above) told delegates: “Workers – mainly women – stepped up during COVID to keep this country going. There was a recognition that these jobs were essential. Now – despite the clapping during COVID – we’re back to business as usual.

“Women enter the labour force already disadvantaged because of our as roles as mothers and carers, and we pay the price. These are wonderful jobs, jobs that should be valued and respected and properly remunerated – but they’re not.”

The UN’s women’s data report for 2020 has estimated that women’s equality is at risk of being set back 25 years due to the pandemic. The UN has therefore reaffirmed its commitment to improving women’s work conditions to combat this rollback.

Yet policymakers have turned their backs on the women workers who made up the majority of frontline workers during the pandemic, conference heard.

“We know that work done by women is neither valued nor paid its worth by society. In fact it is disgracefully underpaid, undervalued and precarious, and the situation is worsening,” stated Ms Ramsden. “This means that women are now bearing the brunt of the cost of living crisis, struggling to feed themselves and their families and to keep their homes.”

In passing the motion, delegates called on the national women’s committee to:

  • Ensure meaningful actions to tackle gender pay gaps are included in future pay claims;
  • Lobby UK governments to bring forward meaningful legislation to close the gaps, with penalties for employers who fail to do so.


“Women are short-changed through their working lives and then through retirement,” Dawn Johnson, North Cumbria, Northumberland and Tyne & Wear health branch (pictured below), told delegates.

“Women are much more likely to take maternity leave when they have a baby, so that lessens their pension. They’re more likely to have caring responsibilities and work part time, that lessens their pension. Low paid workers are largely women, that lessens their pension. Younger women are more likely to suffer from gender-related illnesses, like PMS [premenstrual syndrome] and these lessen their pension.”

Also women statistically struggle more following a divorce, which often leads to them withdrawing from pension schemes to make ends meet, she added. “And that’s all before we’ve reached the menopause. I know women who’ve taken early retirement due to the menopause. Again this affects their pensions.”

The TUC has calculated that the income gap between men and women in retirement is a massive 38%.

“I never expected to have to work until I was 66. I am a domiciliary care worker which is a very intense job,” said Pam McKenzie, Northern Ireland branch. “I suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, as a result of my job, but I can’t afford to retire. I took time out to have three children. I also had to reduce my hours because I have two elderly parents and a disabled grandchild. I have to work longer now to get a full pension.

“I have two brothers and they don’t have to work longer. They think it’s my job, they say it’s women’s work.”

Pauline Baker, Suffolk branch, added: “ I didn’t take time out to have children and I’ve worked since I was 16, but I still don’t know whether I’ll be able to afford to live on the state pension. I have a mortgage, I’ve got heating costs and special dietary needs.”

Added to this, it came to light in July 2022, that due to errors made by the Department for Work and Pensions in national insurance credits, certain married women, widows and over 80s are owed around £1.5 million in back payments, which still hasn’t been paid.

Rosie MacGregor, national retired members’ committee, said: “The income for women pensioners is hugely disproportionate to those of men – almost half the income, by many estimates. Tens of thousands of women have been underpaid their state pension and they’re still having to wait many years for compensation – building injustice on injustice.”

Conference approved the motion on the gender pension gap, to:

  • Work with UNISON’s pension department to improve understanding of the current situation;
  • Develop easy-to-understand information sheets about pensions, to be sent to all women members;
  • Work with LAOS to provide training for women to help them improve their current pension outcomes;
  • Work with Labour Link to lobby the government to lower the auto-enrolment threshold for state pensions, to support the union’s lowest paid women and those with multiple low-paid jobs.