Bonfires and Brexterity: what’s next for women?

We could have quite a serious fight coming up. Whatever comes next, women’s voices should not be so resoundingly drowned out as they were in the Referendum campaign. Women’s rights need to be articulated starkly, bluntly, and loudly, since they were inaudible in the male echo chamber of pre-referendum debates.

According to Lord Ashcroft’s Referendum poll, based on 12 369 people, the leave/remain split between female voters was exactly the same as that for male voters – 52/48. That figure, like the preceding debates, does not reflect the gendered nature of Brexit.

Brexit raises the prospect of a ‘bonfire of rights’. A number of those in the Leave camp have made their distaste for gender equality provisions abundantly clear… (Leave’s) Boris Johnson announced that he would scrap the entire social chapter of the EU.

In terms of what comes next, Brexit is a feminist issue. During the debates, concerns over workplace rights were too often dismissed with a reference to the UK’s legislative track record, suggesting that we were doing very nicely without Europe, thank you. But this argument is rather shallow and misleading. In law, detail is paramount. Yes, the UK stumped up its own Equal Pay Act. But it did not cover things like pension rights – it was up to the European Court of Justice to find that part time workers, more likely to be women, should be entitled to join occupational pension schemes. And it was the ECJ that found that women were entitled to equal pay for work of equal value when no job evaluation study had been done. Yes, the UK created its own Sex Discrimination Act, but it was the ECJ that found that no sick-man comparator was required, contrary to UK law. And it was the ECJ that found that women should not be deprived of their annual leave while on maternity leave. And it was the ECJ that insisted upon protection for a working mother from direct discrimination and harassment on the grounds of her child’s disability. And it was the ECJ that lifted the cap that UK law had placed on compensation in discrimination cases. In short, the ECJ has repeatedly corrected the ‘unprogressive tendencies of the domestic courts.’

Brexit raises the prospect of a ‘bonfire of rights’. A number of those in the Leave camp have made their distaste for gender equality provisions abundantly clear. Priti Patel cited research by Open Europe on the ‘100 most burdensome rules’ which included the part-time workers directive (which ensures equal rights for this group), the gender equality directive, and the parental leave directive. Martin Callanan  (then the chair of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group) said he wanted to “scrap … the Pregnant Workers Directive and all of the other barriers to actually employing people if we really want to create jobs in Europe”. Boris Johnson – looking a contender to be the next Prime Minister, announced that he would scrap the entire social chapter of the EU.

Workplace rights are not the only gendered aspect of Brexit. Its attendant economic shock(s), may well be disproportionately borne by low-income women. Longer, and possibly deeper, austerity is predicted. The effects will not be shared out equally. Austerity policies have already discriminated dramatically against women. House of Commons research found that 73% of the 2010 budget cuts in public expenditure fell on women. Some estimates put the proportion of UK welfare cuts coming out of women’s pockets as high as 85% or over 90%. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently showed that post-Brexit welfare cuts would impact most heavily upon low income households, and particularly acutely upon working lone parent families. Lone parents are disproportionately (around 90%) women.

Whatever happens next, all parties must consider how to protect women’s rights. The possibility of switching to an EEA/EFTA-like agreement is being floated increasingly within the Leave camp. Again, the devil will be in the detail. If we do move to EEA membership, then the UK would be bound by the key gender equality provisions. But we would lose access to the ECJ, being subject instead to the EFTA Court. If we move to ‘something like’, but not exactly, EEA membership, then the differences must be examined keenly, in case negotiators seek to siphon women’s rights out of the package. If we move to something completely different, we must prevent the reckless incineration of gender equality measures and priorities. The vote for Brexit is not a mandate for Brexterity. It could be claimed on the contrary that the vote was influenced heavily by suggestions that there would be greater, not less, public sector spending.

In navigating the unknown course ahead, women’s interests must be equally represented and expressed. Society cannot afford to backslide into anachronistic, patriarchal economic reasoning, in which gender equality measures are at best whimsical luxuries for when the sun is shining, and at worst obstacles to business interests –unthinkingly elided with ‘male’ interests. And single mums, already shouldering the austerity burden, cannot afford to fund our constitutional reshuffle.