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How A Brexit Might Affect British Women

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Illustrated by Anna Sudit
So today we're called upon to determine the future of Britain in Europe with a tick in a box. It's not yet possible to say if a Brexit is on the horizon or not, but there is one thing that's clear: women have the power to decide the outcome of this referendum.

Not only are there a million more of us who are eligible to vote, but, with both campaigns failing to resonate with the female electorate, those votes are still up for grabs – a recent ICM poll for the Fawcett Society revealed that twice as many women as men remain undecided about whether the debate has addressed their issues.

"Women are more likely to be undecided, but less likely to feel that the campaigns are helping to make their mind up," The Fawcett Society's Head of Policy and Insight, Jemima Olchawski, told Refinery29. YouGov, however, told us that "it's more a case that women are more comfortable saying that they don't know."

"The campaigns have been completely dominated by men grandstanding against each other rather than actually talking about the issues that matter to women as they're preparing for their vote," says Olchawski. "At the moment it's often a debate about figures, about big business – it's not connected to our real, everyday lives. What is lacking is a positive vision from either side of what life would look like in, or out, of Europe."

This week, shadow business secretary Angela Eagle put it even more bluntly: "Women's voices have been drowned out by the unmistakably masculine and noisy playground spat that is taking place between Tory blokes," she said, adding that the leave campaign needs to come clean and tell us "which rights for working women they want to scrap."
It might be easy to forget or overlook, but few can deny the crucial role the EU has played in progressing and protecting equal opportunities for women in the UK.

True, Britain already had legislation in place to help protect women from discrimination at work before we joined the EEC (as it was then known) in 1973, but it has only been with subsequent, legally-binding directives from the EU that women have gained something closer to true equality.
In 1973 the UK got the Equal Pay Act, which meant women could demand the same wage as a man in a like-for-like job. However, it was only in 1984 that the UK government was forced to include the EU's 1976 equal pay for equal work directive, after it was taken to court by the European Commission. Finally ‘women’s work’ was equal to ‘men’s work’ of a similar level of skill, effort or responsibility: cooks were the same as craftsmen, cleaners could get equal pay to bin men.

It's also thanks to EU law that, in 1997, part-time workers were able to gain equal pay and benefits compared to full-timers (on a pro-rata basis.) And given that today 6.13 million women work part time compared to 2.14 million men, that's significant progress for many women.

And then there's the protections the EU has put in place for pregnant workers. While the UK has had paid maternity leave in one (patchy) form or another since 1911, the EU's 1992 Pregnant Workers Directive guaranteed all women at least 14 weeks paid maternity leave, the right to return to the same job, and protections from being fired for being pregnant – a practice that was routine in the 1970s.

The question is, now those battles have been won, would anything happen if we leave? And what is there left to gain if we stay?

"It is very difficult to know what the government will do in the future," says Dr Roberta Guerrina, Reader in Politics at Surrey University. "But European regulations and directives which are legally binding provide a safety net." In other words, though unlikely that a government would backtrack on these hard-won laws, without the EU, there are no guarantees.

Indeed, earlier this month, Harriet Harman claimed a Brexit would "derail the fight for women's rights," and while Brexiteers such as Vote Leave's Suzanne Evans rubbished Harman's comments as "utterly laughable", it's hard to ignore the fact that this government continues to push women and equality to the bottom of agenda and has introduced policies that disproportionally negatively affect women.

"Equality is something that governments promote in times of economic prosperity, but seems to be acceptable collateral damage at points of crises," says Dr Guerrina. "Social justice, gender equality and equal pay have taken a significant set back due to austerity." Of course, you only need to look at George Osborne's last two budgets for proof of that. And with recent reports detailing how the government is only perpetuating the gender pay gap, and that 54,000 women last year lost their jobs owing to maternity leave discrimination, your heart doesn't exactly sing at the idea of being left alone without the EU to have our backs.
The Leave campaign, however, has downplayed these issues and has argued that women who campaign for a Brexit are like the suffragettes "fighting for our democratic freedom."

"Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes did not fight to have the right to vote on who governs them, only to then see those decisions surrendered to the EU’s undemocratic institutions and political elite," said employment minister Priti Patel. So too has the Leave campaign been able to claim the scrapping of tampon tax, citing EU trade regulations as the reason it wasn't able to happen sooner.

But what about the other, less female-centric issues? Women aren't solely interested in how much feminine hygiene products cost and, when one in five women won't have had a child by the age of 45, it's clear there's a significant number of us who won't be affected by maternity laws.

"When both campaigns try to capture women's vote they focus on core women's issues: the tampon tax, maternity rights, parental leave, equal treatment and so on", says Dr Guerrina. "What neither campaign has done is bridge the gap between core women's issues, which are important, and high politics issues like economy."

"It is assumed that women are a homogenous group when there are significant democratic differences," she continues. "The issues of employment are relevant to younger women, whereas issues relating to pensions are more relevant to older women. Treating women as a single cohort or voting group is erroneous. Women's lived experiences, opportunities and pathways to employment are very different depending on geography, socio-economic status, ethnicity and age. And those issues of intersectionality are largely overlooked."

How, then, when the debate remains, as Dr Guerrina describes, so "male, pale and stale," and largely without facts, can we endeavour to make an informed decision?

"I think women need to think about the issues that matter to them," says Olchawski. "Women are all different and it depends what their priorities are. For some it will be the wider economic case, for some it will be about their children or job or local hospital. The thing to emphasise is women can make all the difference."
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