With or without the EU? – Brexit as a women’s issue

As Brexit negotiations begin what are the costs and possible opportunities of the UK's departure on gender equality and democracy in Britain?

42 years ago the UK’s first nationwide referendum was held regarding if the country should stay or leave the European Economic Community (EEC) – the EU’s precursor – with the result that people decided to remain. But by the time Britain’s official exit from the EU began on May 29 2017, many things had been altered, especially pertaining to women’s and gender issues.

In 1975, women were not only addressed by mainstream politicians in their campaigns, they were also active agents in the referendum process, largely campaigning to ‘vote yes’ to the EU. Moreover, Europe needed women; it needed their labour market participation in the name of equality and freedom. Today, we hear about ensuring equal rights for workers in the name of uniting the whole nation without any explicit reference to women and the exact policy instruments and preventions to ensure their equality after Brexit. In a rapidly changing socio-politico-economic context, in the era of the global financial crisis and Brexit, where have women’s rights been vanquished to?

Since the 2016 referendum, hate speech and racial crimes, and bias and prejudice against people of colour have intensified.

In both the 2016 referendum negotiations and the general election campaigns, the potential effects of Brexit on women’s rights and gender equality were not reflected in political and media discourse. More worrisome are reports illustrating that since the 2016 referendum, hate speech and racial crimes, and bias and prejudice against people of colour have intensified. Still, political and public debates centre on the economic stabilisation of the UK due to the exit from the EU’s single market, and on security and migration issues with the restriction of freedom of movement. Meanwhile, the deeply gendered impacts of these politico-economic-economic security changes in society are being overlooked.

Accordingly, it is not mentioned by politicians and policy-makers what kind of exact internal political and legislative consequences will occur in the post-Brexit context that affect British citizens’ everyday lives, where minority groups and women are more vulnerable to these changes. The EU’s gender equality and human rights laws have protected the rights of these groups – until now. But even in the past and in current EU member states, it seems women’s issues (like other minority rights) are hidden under mainstream politicians’ priorities and goals. This is especially dangerous as today, not only in Europe, but also globally, the legitimacy of democracy and human rights are questioned and renegotiated in the rise of extremism, illiberalism and xenophobia against refugees and immigrants.

The EU and the development of UK gender equality policies

Despite the EU’s well-known neoliberal notion of its equal opportunities policies and particularly gender equality, little is said about the fact that the UK’s gender equality agenda has been shaped by EU law since Britain’s accession to the EU in 1973. Even though there was legislation concerning sex and racial discrimination etc. in the UK before the EU, the common EU law expanded and strengthened these rights in theory. For instance, ‘shared parental leave, equal pay, anti-discrimination laws, special funding for women-led projects and protection against harassment and human trafficking were all enshrined in EU law.’ At the same time, the EU’s aim was primarily to increase women’s employment and thus ensure economic growth in the region; but this is more to secure the EU’s power, rather than to combat gender inequality.

Instead of raising questions and proposing policy solutions on the expected dangers and opportunities that Brexit means for gender equality, women and minority voices are silenced in political debate.

Controversially, the same agenda in the political discourses about Brexit and the current election campaigning is used in Britain. It is all about accomplishing the UK’s economic and political power in a (gender-)neutral way. Instead of raising questions and proposing policy solutions on the expected dangers and opportunities that Brexit means for gender equality, women and minority voices are silenced in political debate. Likewise, in the campaigning, all political parties failed to explicitly address the potential impacts of Brexit on women’s rights – to make Brexit a women’s issue.

Due to the main focus being placed on economic advantages without an appropriate consideration of gender equality as a human rights issue, it is not surprising that the passive approach of EU laws, directives and charters (e.g., equal opportunities of women and men in legal terms and anti-discrimination law, etc.) could not bring about real social and political change in British society. Also, the EU’s official gender mainstreaming strategy as a transformative policy tool – one that addresses the systematic integration of equal opportunities for women and men in all spheres and aspects of society and politics by altering decision-making rules and norms – have remained a promise rather than a reality in EU member states.

In effect, despite EU membership ‘and the political rhetoric about Britain’s traditions of ‘liberty’ and ‘tolerance,’ the UK actually has a long history of inequality and discrimination on grounds of age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and disability.” As per statistics and reports, it seems that due to the insufficiency of legal protection, inequalities are growing and continue to grow in the UK, especially among minority groups who are multiply disadvantaged.

This further reinforces the disadvantaged position of mothers of young children, children’s poverty, women’s and particularly ethnic minorities’ employment opportunities, the so-called gender pay gap and LGBTQ-rights – not to mention the rising hostility and prejudice against people of colour in the country. What is more, ‘gender mainstreaming and the positive promotion of gender equality are barely represented by the UK’s public sector’s duty to curb discrimination.’

This raises the question of whether the EU has enough power in the promotion and implementation of gender equality policies in its member states. Will the UK really lose by exiting the EU from this perspective? On one hand, as far as I can ascertain, it will – at least in terms of the transnational lobby and advocacy network on gender equality and human rights that have been created by the EU. The European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights is a significant institution in this sense, which helps ‘to process legislation on equal treatment adopted by EU institutions, invites transnational lobbying on women’s issues, and investigates particular issues and concerns that affect women,’ while ‘Britain has no such an influential institution.’ Additional opportunities like the EC’s funding for women in the labour market, economic independence, and equality in leadership positions will be lost alongside the lobbying of the European Anti-Poverty Network, the European Women’s Lobby (EWL), and the European Network for One Parent Families, which all aim to combat gender inequality.

On the other hand, it is up to the next government to turn the apparently negative impact of Brexit into a possibility for change. There is nothing new about how the EU’s normative power at exporting and ensuring gender equality is implemented in its member states has had a lack of results. In Britain too, despite the EU’s human rights and gender equality role, the normative goals of equality have not been translated into significant social, economic, political, and cultural equality in society. In addition, as gender equality has been gradually marginalised in the EU’s policies, the point is rather how the next elected UK government can live with the new opportunity that Brexit poses through rebuilding its gender equality, human rights and diversity politics and policies from its core, independent of EU bureaucracy.

Brexit as an opportunity to promote and achieve gender equality?

In such a world – both within and outside Europe – where terrorism, political extremism, xenophobia, and fundamentalism threaten, gender equality and women’s rights as a basic human right seem to be secondary objects of discussion.

The women’s question is not part of British political parties’ agendas, which could easily lead to missing the priority and impacts of social, economic, political, and cultural equality in which British society should be built upon. This is especially significant regarding the fact that all economic and political decisions have gendered impacts, and in the long run may deepen already existing inequalities in society.

Women’s rights depend on the new government’s recognition that it needs women to change the male dominance that has traditionally been pushed by UK politics.

Much depends on whether the new government will be able to establish its own institutional framework along with new equality and human rights issues in a transparent way, through all government departments, various policy levels, lobbying spaces, and advocacy of civil society. Most importantly, women and minority rights depend on whether the government will recognise that it needs women at the frontline in this process, to change the supremacy of the male dominance that has traditionally been pushed by the EU and current UK politics.

The government should make sure that equal rights and women’s rights will be addressed, analysed and promoted, as these have had importance since the beginning of the processes for building and advancing democracies in the EU. As far as I can see, the situation today is similar to what it was then. Europe’s democratic values and its commitment to social justice have arrived at an important turning point. The next UK government’s answer to the women’s question will be central to the issue of getting through the economic and refugee crisis and of establishing what Brexit means for British society.

Photo courtesy of Jade Jackman (Sisters Uncut)


Bianka Vida
'Bianka Vida holds an MA degree in Critical Gender Studies with a specialisation in Public Policy from Central European University (CEU), Hungary. Her main research interests are the inclusion of gender equality in EU research policy, the EU’s discursive politics of gender equality, and EU equality and social inclusion policies in general. She frequently publishes her works in English and Hungarian so as to contribute to public and academic discussions on gender equality more broadly.