Brexit, Women & Gender Equality.
As Brexit begins to unravel our ties to Europe, Britain risks being left behind on gender equality. From equal pay, to the safeguarding of women’s rights in the workplace, much of the progress made towards levelling out the gender playing field is now guaranteed by EU membership. According to Best For Britain (https://www.bestforbritain.org/sexist-brexit), Brexit threatens to put that hard-won progress at risk.
In the last decade alone, the EU has funded women-led projects in the UK to the tune of £8 billion. But its impact can be measured in far more than just pound signs. The EU has put gender equality at the forefront of its agenda, and as such has played an important role in the protection and advancement of women’s rights.
Left Foot Forward (https://leftfootforward.org/2019/03/iwd-10-ways-being-in-the-eu-has-benefited-women-and-why-we-should-fight-sexist-brexit/) has outlined some of the ways the EU benefits women.
Let’s start with maternity leave. Thanks to EU legislation, pregnancy can no longer be grounds for dismissal in the workplace. Pregnant workers are now legally entitled to at least 14 weeks paid maternity leave, as well as the right to take time off from work for family reasons, appointments or when a child gets sick. Importantly, the EU also gives new fathers the right to at least 18 weeks’ paternity leave, helping parents share the load more evenly, and allowing women a much easier return to the workplace.
The EU has long protected against discrimination in the workplace based on gender, advancing the progress of employment rights for women, especially when it comes to equal pay. The EU is a powerful ally as we push for greater representation of women at boardroom level, with the legal pursuit of this equality firmly enshrined in EU law. Going further, the EU has initiated talks to address the imbalance in the amount of unpaid care women do, outlawing discrimination against employees with carer status, or against those with a relationship to a disabled person. With women making up almost 60% of the 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK, it is women who benefit most from this protection.
EU law has made discrimination against people in the workplace based on their sexual orientation illegal. EU law was instrumental in the decriminalisation of gay sex in Northern Ireland. It was the EU which strengthened the rights of people going through gender reassignment treatment. The UK, as a member of the EU, has strengthened its commitment to progress on LGBT+ rights, but has already stated its intentions to cancel its membership to the all important ECHR, the body responsible for so much progress in this area.
Currently, over 75% of NHS staff are women, with more women relying on the NHS and its services than men. With 7,000 nurses and midwives having already left the UK since the European referendum, and with that number set to increase, staff for our hospitals, nurseries and care homes will be in short supply. Statistically, women are four times more likely to leave work to take care of a child or a relative, meaning a larger proportion of women will be forced back in to the home when the care crisis deepens.
According to credible economic forecasts, confidence and investment in Britain will nosedive, the pound will weaken further, interest rates will fall, and a period of stagnated growth will become the norm. With less being brought in from tax and less public investment, job cuts and a blow to public services are likely to follow. As women are overrepresented in sectors at greatest risk of economic downturn, and are already paid over 18% less than men, it’s perhaps fair to assume it is women who will suffer the most.
Whether Leave or Remain, endangering hard-won women’s rights was not on the ballot. After Brexit, many rights and protected policies could be altered by any future government, without benefitting from the protection of an international court. Whilst it seems unlikely that the UK would seek to undo progress made towards gender equality, a quick look over to America should serve as a warning sign for how misogynistic and regressive politics can quickly go mainstream.