What Does Brexit Mean for Women?

Erin Brady Brexit Women Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy

Historically, men have been responsible for the decisions that have defined Britain, and the vote for Brexit was no different. By a narrow majority, women of the UK voted to remain in the European Union (EU) compared to 54% of men who chose to leave. Although more women voted against Article 50 than for it, the outcome of the referendum must be implemented despite the potential for detrimental effects on women’s rights.

Article 8 on the Functioning of the EU states that “in all its activities, the [European] Union shall aim to eliminate inequalities, and to promote equality, between men and women,” towards which the EU has undoubtedly worked so far. The EU enshrines equal rights and recognises gender equality as a founding aim and fundamental necessity.

Since the UK became a member in 1973, clear progress has been made regarding equal pay and protections for women. For example, on June 7th, 1968, a monumental strike occurred in Dagenham. 187 female machinists who made seat covers for Ford refused to work because they were only being paid 85% of what their male coworkers earned for the same job. This strike acted as the catalyst for the introduction of the 1970 Equal Pay Act, yet this was not effective as it merely got rid of women’s and men’s rates for the same job or grade rather than tackling the key issue of women being paid significantly less. It wasn’t until 1975, two years after the UK became a member of the EU, that the British government was forced to take action due to the EU adoption of the Equal Pay Directive. Nevertheless, then Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government failed to amend their answer in the Equal Pay Act. The European Commission took the UK to the European Court of Justice to compel it into compliance with the Directive, which stated in article 119 that there had to be equal pay for work of equal value. 

Prior to the amendment of the UK 2001 Sex Discrimination Act, it was left to the victim to prove that they were being treated as inferior, but EU directive 97/80/EC forced the burden of proof onto employers instead. As the EU recognised, it can be extremely difficult for an individual to stand up to the power of a corporation. Such a shift in legislation means it is easier to register claims without fear of financial and social retribution by a large organisation.

The Council of Europe is responsible for addressing gender-based violence. Upon signing the Istanbul Convention, the European Union further confirmed their commitment to gender equality. The Istanbul Convention has one of the largest scopes in combating violence against women and domestic violence as compared to other international treaties. It stipulates the responsibilities of State Parties to provide adequate and sufficient funding for rape crisis centres, helplines for survivors of gender-based violence, and school projects to teach about gender equality. Statistics show that in the EU, one in twenty women have been raped and one in three women have been a survivor of sexual violence by the age of 15. For this reason, it is integral that actions are taken to protect women. Despite Philip Davies's campaign to derail the bill with a 93-minute filibuster, MPs voted 138-1 in favour of the Istanbul Convention. However, such commitments could be compromised with Brexit as it is unclear whether or not this bill from the European Commission will progress to the House of Lords.  

The EU is by no means perfect, but it was the centre of gender equality for Britain.

It is clear that nothing can be done to alter the outcome of the Brexit referendum as Article 50 has been evoked and negotiations are well underway. There is no going back, and so those who wish to ensure equality must push to prioritise human rights as central to UK domestic and foreign policy. It is important to remember that all conventions of fair treatment will not be lost by leaving the EU, due to common law rather than legal measures and the court of Human Rights, but there is justified concern over the extent to which these will be effectively protected by British law.

Leaving the EU could mean that Britain will be neglected from the European Council and Commission - an idea that is supported by Prime Minister Theresa May - due to her fears that unelected judges in Luxembourg can make decisions which would affect Britain. Instead, the government has suggested that there will be a British Bill of Rights, but have refrained from detailing what this will include, causing a further lack of certainty. David Davies, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, has affirmed that some EU laws will remain in practice to ensure continuity. Yet there is still no confirmation of what will be kept and how women will be protected if their rights are no longer recognised under the EU’s legislation. The EU is by no means perfect, but it was the centre of gender equality for Britain. Leaving it risks turning the clock back and nullifying the hard-won battles for women’s rights. Now more than ever we must ensure that women's rights are of central concern as Brexit is finalised.       

Erin Brady is a student passionate about social justice and hopes to have a successful career in politics. 

Marissa Conway