One of the UK’s leading voices on gender parity in the workplace has said she believes women will “fight our way back” from the pandemic reversals that some claim have set back progress by at least half a decade.

Caroline Whaley of Shine4Women said there is mounting evidence that female workers are continuing to bear the brunt of the economic fall-out of Covid-19, with some surveys suggesting as many as three-quarters of jobs lost in the UK during the pandemic have been those of women. Globally, women make up 39 per cent of employment, but account for 54% of total job losses.

In conjunction with that, the resulting squeeze on earnings is having a disproportionate impact on women, who are over-represented in lower-paid jobs and more likely to earn less than male colleagues at higher levels.

“It is extremely alarming,” Ms Whaley said. “If you had asked me about this back in January or February, I would have said we were making good progress – still a long way to go, but things were moving in the right direction.

“Now what we’re seeing is a substantial reversal with women not only being forced out of work, but also removing themselves from work because of feeling like they can not continue because of other demands.”

The long-term danger of this, according to the latest annual Women in the Workplace study produced by McKinsey & Co, is the workforce will be left with far fewer females on track to become the future leaders needed to shape more inclusive hiring programmes and act as role models for their successors. This threatens to “unwind years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity”.

Ms Whaley co-founded Shine4Women in 2013, a coaching consultancy that has worked with more than 10,000 individuals around the world within organisations committed to getting more women into the senior ranks.

The disparity in the number of women in higher-paying roles is one of the biggest factors in the difference in median pay of men and women that has been widely documented since the UK introduced mandatory gender pay gap reporting in 2018. What impact the pandemic has had on pay differentials will be difficult to say, as the Government suspended the reporting requirement for this year, and has yet to confirm whether it will be reinstated in 2021.

“There are a lot of people lobbying for that right now, but we have not had any confirmation one way or the other,” Ms Whaley said.

Even so, a recent report by the Fawcett Society and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London found that the UK is “unique in its light-touch approach” to asking employers what actions they will take to address any gender pay disparities that are identified. The lack of sanctions for employers who fail to act has been accused of “making a mockery” of pay gap reporting.

In addition, only organisations with at least 250 employees are required to report in the UK. That’s five times the median of 50 for the other countries analysed in the Fawcett Society report.

Laura Jones of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership said without a requirement to produce an action plan, many employers fail to do anything.

“Lowering the minimum employee threshold for gender pay gap reporting would also enable us to get a more complete picture of how women are managing through the current economic disruption, and other countries show that it can be done in a way that isn’t an extra burden for smaller employers,” she added.

Ms Whaley said employers can alleviate the pressures that are leading women to leave work by “resetting the norms” around flexibility, creating a more sustainable pace, and being realistic about performance targets amid the current crisis: “The great thing about these last few months is that we now know that flexible working really does work, so there is no excuse for organisations not to adapt to the situations that people exist in.”

She added: “We will fight our way back, though of course it will be in an environment that is much tougher than any of us previously imagined.”