The post-Brexit era which we now find ourselves in has felt like a collective break-up, at least in the Remain camp. First came the shock, then the anger, the grief, and finally the brief moments of hope that somehow ‘the greatest political crisis of our time’ would be resolved with some sense of rationality. What the past six weeks have shown the British public, is that rationality seems to be largely absent in the upper political echelons of this country (sorry, Boris). What has also been absent, not only after the results but also during the Brexit debate, is the discussion of what Brexit means for gender equality.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate what the EU has done for gender equality. There is EU legislation which actively obliges EU states to promote gender equality. For instance, the EU Gender Equality Recast Directive ‘prohibits … discrimination on grounds of sex in relation to pay.’ In the 1970s, the European Court of Justice declared that the UK had not fulfilled its obligations to incorporate the concept of equal pay for work of equal value and the UK amended its Equal Pay Act accordingly. And when the Equal Pay Act did not cover occupational pension schemes for part-time workers – who are more likely to be women – the European Court of Justice advocated for equal pensions for part-time workers. Protection from pregnancy and maternity discrimination, improved protection from sexual harassment and equal pay for female part-time workers are just a few of the many efforts the ECJ have made for a more gender-equal European Union (for a more detailed description of what EU law has done for gender equality, see full report published by The Trade Union Congress).
It is uncertain what the gendered costs of Brexit will be. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research showed that post-Brexit welfare cuts would hit low-income households the hardest, and particularly the lone parent families with two children. 90% of lone parents are women. According to the TUC’s findings, Brexit may threaten the EU-guaranteed rights for workers as UK governments can deregulate the labour market and reduce ‘burdens’ on businesses. Thus, without the assurances of EU laws, women are at risk of facing a future in which they cannot expect rights to equal treatment, job security and maternity and parental leave. The UK can also say goodbye to the €6.17 billion the EU allocated to achieve gender equality objectives between 2014 and 2020. Some of these objectives include promotion of female entrepreneurship, gender equality in research and better integration of migrant women in the labour market.
Would 52% of women have voted to leave if all of this had been made clear to them during the debate? An ICM poll for the Fawcett Society found that both campaigns largely failed to address issues that women were concerned about. Deborah Mattinson, founder of Britain Thinks suggested that in order to engage female voters, both sides needed to appeal to how the EU personally affects them. She pointed out that ‘the ‘stay’ arguments are much more effective when related to the personal level – talking about potential job losses rather than impacts on trade and investment.’ However, employment issues along with topics such as ‘social security’ and ‘public services’ received less than 10% of media coverage. On the contrary, TV and newspapers gave most attention to the economy and immigration. While the economic aspect of the debate is rightfully pivotal, the possible impact of austerity on women as a result of Brexit was apparently of little importance to mainstream media. It has already been made clear that austerity policies have disproportionately affected women. Additionally, the ubiquitous presence of white, male politicians and experts in both TV and press coverage reveals the entrenched tendency to undervalue women’s opinions and expertise. With the Leave campaign being so fuelled with lies and empty promises, the absence of female voices is another handful of salt sprinkled in a wound that Britain will need time to heal from.
While there is certainly room for improvement in EU’s gender equality agenda, Brexit means that the UK has placed itself outside any discussion that may further enhance women’s rights. If the UK had stayed in the EU we could, for instance, put pressure upon the rather male-dominated institution that the EU is. We could have sought to minimise the ways in which EU’s austerity measures, like the UK, generate multiple gendered damages. It is not likely that because of Brexit, all gender-equality initiatives ever fought for will be thrown out the window. If we move to EEA membership, the UK would be obligated to follow key gender equality objectives. We would, however, lose access to the European Court of Justice, who has played a crucial role for women’s rights in Britain.
Planning UK’s (isolated) future, we need women at the forefront. Because at the moment, I for one am fed up with the absence of women (among other marginalised groups) in major political debates and that, in this ‘meritocratic’ society we supposedly live, white men still dominate. We need women who understand why you may need protection from workplace sexism, who do not rob essential rights from you if you work part-time in order to take care of your children. We need politicians who understand how fiscal policies can have a skewed effect on women’s economic position, such as cuts in the public sector where women make up 65% of the workforce, or when the employment tribunal fees introduced by the coalition government in 2013 resulted in an 80% decrease of women pursuing sex discrimination claims. In a Britain that currently feels horrendously divided, women must stand together, putting pressure on the Brexit negotiators to protect women’s rights and not treat gender equality measures as a luxury available only in times of economic prosperity.
Malene Bratlie in a BA Sociology student at the University of Greenwich and Compass volunteer.