Where are Women in the Brexit Debates?

By Maura Reilly on October 30, 2019

Despite the changes in public opinion, women’s role in Brexit and the focus on Brexit’s impact on women, has remained stagnant.

The referendum on Brexit which occurred a little over three years ago, has sparked large amounts of international and local UK debate, speculation and large-scale protests both for and against. The vote itself on the 23 of June 2016, had a fairly even split of both men and women voting to leave, women broke 51/49 to leave and men broke 53/47 to leave. Early negotiations were also headed by the then new Prime Minister Theresa May. All overt signs showed women had equal voice in the referendum and the aftermath. But in the three years since the referendum, statistics show women may not have been represented at an equal level at all. Loughborough University conducted a study on the Brexit media campaign the six weeks leading up to the vote. The study showed men took up 85 percent of the press space, 70 percent of the TV coverage was of four male Conservative leaders and Nigel Farage (UKIP), only 18 percent of people quoted on Brexit were women, and only one of the major newspapers in the UK has a woman as a political editor. And while a woman may have headed up the government after Brexit and during early negotiations, only one woman was on the UK Brexit negotiation team as of June 2017. As author and campaigner suggests, Caroline Criado-Perez “women have been shut out from the Brexit debate since the very beginning. In the run-up to the referendum voices were not heard and the issues that affected women were not discussed.”

In the three years since the referendum, not only has there been a dearth of women in negotiations, there has been no movement or engagement with conducting a gender-impact study of Brexit by the government. Gender 5+, a European Feminist Think Tank conducted a report on the process and the possible impacts of Brexit on women in the UK, finding “overall, negotiations have so far been conducted in a way that is not conducive to women’s representation or participation.” While there has been no government report or research into the gender-impact of Brexit, many women’s organizations have taken up the mantle and produced reports. Leaving the European Union has many potentialities for women, one of which is a loss of EU laws and regulations, which includes some of the most far-reaching protections for women in the world; this could hinder the UK’s progress toward gender equality. The heightened risk of recession for the UK after Brexit, will disproportionately harm women than men. Following the 2008 recession and subsequent austerity measures, which also did not have a gender-impact assessment, hurt women and minorities more than white men; this is likely to occur again if there is another recession. A loss of care-sector workers from EU member countries, could lead to a reversal of women in the workplace, as women take on an increased amount of unpaid domestic labour.

Three years in, with the deadline for Brexit fast approaching on October 31st, women’s voices continue to be absent. Former Prime Minister Theresa May has resigned following pressure, and her replacement Boris Johnson’s incendiary comments have inspired and been used in an increasing number of death threats against women MPs who oppose a no-deal Brexit. A recent YouGov poll on Brexit, has found women now back remaining in the EU by 12 points, Peter Kellner a pollster commented on the poll saying, “two years ago, both men and women backed Brexit, and by broadly similar margins […] since then, the swing to remain bas been almost twice as much among women as men.” Despite the changes in public opinion, women’s role in Brexit and the focus on Brexit’s impact on women, has remained stagnant.

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