WOMEN in the Borders will effectively work three weeks for free this year, figures revealing the area’s gender pay gap show.

The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality, welcomed a national narrowing between male and female workers’ wages but warned the pandemic could “turn the clock back for a generation” of women. 

Figures from the Office of National Statistics show women in the Borders earned an average hourly salary of £11.96 in April – which is 7 per cent less than men, who earned £12.80. 

Over the course of the working year, this means, in effect, women in the Borders will work without pay from December 9 in 2020.

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Female workers in the Borders also earn below the median average hourly rate of £12.50 for women across the UK.

The equivalent for UK men is £14.79, meaning they earn 15.5 per cent more every hour – down from 17.4 per cent in 2019.

Hourly figures are used to remove the effect of overtime, with the median rate used to stop the findings being skewed by particularly small or large wages.

When hours worked are taken into account, the mean average full-time salary for UK women is £33,259, compared with £42,231 for men.

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The Fawcett Society marked November 20 as Equal Pay Day this year – the day when women, effectively, stop being paid. 

The gender equality charity said a fall in the pay gap is positive, but cautioned that a quarter of employers are missing from the ONS data because of disruptions caused by COVID-19.

Sam Smethers, the Fawcett Society chief executive, said coronavirus poses a number of risks to women’s pay and employment which could “turn the clock back for a generation”, though it will take until next year to know how significant this will be. 

She added: “Mothers are more likely to have had their work disrupted due to unequal caring roles and a lack of childcare.

“Men are more likely to have worked under furlough, and to have had their pay topped up.

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“The second lockdown [in England] looks set to hit women working in hospitality and retail hard while predominantly male-dominated sectors like construction and manufacturing are still at work.”

Pay discrimination is prohibited by law but the charity says it persists because employers can too easily hide salary information.

Other factors include women doing more part-time work, often as mothers or carers, an undervaluing of the types of work women do, a lack of women entering some well-paid careers such as engineering, and the failure to promote women within organisations. 

The Equality and Human Rights Commission said reporting gender pay gap data is an important tool in combatting unlawful pay discrimination, but “meaningful action” is also needed.

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A spokeswoman added: “We have repeatedly called for the UK Government to make it mandatory for employers to publish action plans with specific targets and deadlines alongside their pay gap data. 

“This would mean that employers not only have to gather the data, but also interrogate it and put in place measures which could help create an environment where women can flourish.”

The Scottish Government said its own analysis suggests the pandemic could exacerbate existing labour market inequalities for women.

A spokeswoman added: “That’s why we are determined to continue to take action to bridge the gender pay gap through initiatives such as the recently launched Women Returners Programme to support women returning to work from a career break.

"We also continue to call on the UK government to make the publication of plans to tackle the gender pay gap mandatory under the 2017 reporting regulations, but sadly this has so far been rejected.”