What does Brexit mean for Women

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Whether you voted for it or not, Brexit now seems inevitable. But what does this actually mean, for the average person and for the country? Given the lack of clear direction indicated by the government, it is understandable if you’re confused trying to keep up. In this blog we will try and identify the concrete consequences of the vote across a range of topics, so that you can better understand the evolving situation. What does Brexit mean…

…Women?

Women were marginalised in some areas of the debate during the referendum campaign, and both sides faced criticism for neglecting issues relevant to the female population. In this article, we’ll look at how the place of women in British politics has changed since the vote, and whether this is likely to help secure the interests of women in the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

The Big Picture

With negotiations yet to start, and rights under the EU protected for the time being, it is nonetheless clear that we are looking at a substantially different political environment for women than the one we could have anticipated in June.

Significantly, we have our second British female Prime Minister. The referendum campaign was sometimes beset by the sense that influential women were being used as pawns in the games of activists and the media, as in the case of the Sun, which caused controversy by casting the Queen as a Leave supporter. Politicians such as Caroline Lucas criticized the abundance of “men in grey suits”[1], whilst the Financial Times went as far as to warn that the referendum debate risked becoming an exercise in mansplaining[2]. Certainly, whilst local campaigns such as Cambridge For Europe had a gender-balanced composition, with a mix of voices, on a national level the rhetoric was overwhelmingly male dominated. In a post-Brexit world, it would have been easy to predict that this sense of marginalisation would continue.

Instead, in the political turmoil that followed, it was the focused competence of Theresa May, and her short lived leadership rival Andrea Leadsom, that rose to the top of British politics. We are yet to see the impact that a female Prime Minister will have upon the lives of ordinary women, but what cannot be overstated is the significance of May breaking the glass ceiling. Particularly worthy of note are the circumstances of her doing so – Leadsom’s resignation from the leadership race is thought to have been partially as a result of criticism stemming from her comments regarding May’s childlessness. Disdain in the media for Leadsom’s conflation of political ability and personal life reflects the rise of Nicola Sturgeon’s diverse cabinet in Scottish politics, and the election of London Mayor Sadiq Khan – proof that one’s identity is slowly becoming less of a barrier in the rise to political leadership.

Diversity is less well represented in May’s first cabinet. May increased the proportion of women by only 3% over Cameron’s, with merely one more female added. Whilst this is disappointing, it is worth noting that May may have been institutionally limited in her appointments – gender disparity in the Commons mean that she may have perceived the pool of women with the necessary experience to be in cabinet as limited. She also had to maintain a careful balance between Leave and Remain campaigners. Under these circumstances, May can be congratulated for some of her appointments. Women occupy a greater number of senior positions than under Cameron’s leadership, including the roles of Home Secretary and Justice Secretary. This marks a secure advancement from the less prestigious roles held by women in recent years, such as Education Secretary and Environment Secretary. These appeared to have become cast as the ‘safe’ seats for women to occupy – May’s extension away from this can be seen as a conscious sign of progress. 4 of the 7 women in cabinet were Remain supporters, including Amber Rudd and Liz Truss, those in the most senior positions[3].

Individual Consequences?

For the average woman in the UK however, the position of female politicians in Westminster makes only an ideological statement. More important on a practical level is the impact that women in politics could have on Brexit negotiations and the guarantee of protections for British citizens.

As talks begin, May’s developing relationship with Angela Merkel will be particularly interesting to watch, given that both are used to creating political bonds with overwhelmingly male leaders. A good working relationship, possibly strengthened by their shared gender, could ensure a better outcome for the UK.

This is especially important for women, as they are a group particularly vulnerable to a loss of protection if the UK does not sustain or continue to ratify EU legislation. This currently covers areas as diverse as sex trafficking and protection from domestic abuse. May’s strong stance against both these areas may stand her in good stead, although her record on protecting migrant women has been criticized[4]. Particularly important to maintain is Britain’s police collaboration with European nations, a scheme that currently protects British citizens from abusive or threatening persons (often former partners) when abroad.

Workers rights with regards to working hours and maternity rights are also key to guarantee. The European Working Time Directive, when enforced, currently enables working men and women the legal right to maintain a work/life balance. For those with children, and particularly single parents, the existence of the legislation is invaluable. The right to maternity leave is unlikely to be threatened, but long term mechanisms need to be put in place for the UK to keep an eye on evolving EU legislation, to ensure that our freedoms do not fall behind. One can only hope that a higher number of senior women in politics may help to keep a priority on this – certainly Rudd has expressed long term commitment to equality for women in work. Importantly, we must emphasise the need to continue increasing the presence of women in politics – ensuring that our voices continue to be heard in the years of negotiations ahead.

Reflections

Reflections on women’s position during the referendum, particularly on the Leave side, suggest that the aftermath of the vote was in many ways a surprise. Despite an exclusionary rhetoric, the collapse of both core political parties in the days following Brexit opened up an opportunity for female political talent to come to the fore. This however does not satisfy wider concerns about ensuring protection of women’s interests in the short term, and in future negotiations. Whilst May and other women in Cabinet have the potential to fight for a favourable outcome for Britain’s 51%, this is by no means guaranteed.