Brexit is a debacle, but it has particularly bad implications for vulnerable women

From cuts to women’s services to threats to the rights of female employees, conversations around Brexit need to be gendered.

The conversations around Brexit should be gendered, but they are not. Why? While politicians and the public have addressed and debated which sectors and workers are most likely to be affected, those conversations have overwhelmingly failed to include the effects of Brexit on women.

In June 2016, the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to determine whether citizens wanted to continue the UK’s partnership with the European Union (remain) or exit (leave). The results were so close that it created a political quagmire: 51 per cent voted to leave while 49 per cent voted to remain. In March 2017, nine months after the referendum, the UK triggered Article 50, a provision within the Treaty of Lisbon, that allows a country within the regional partnership the right to leave the EU. The situation poses challenges to multiple industries and sectors of the economy, and to society in general. For example, economists estimate that if the UK does not remain in the EU their GDP will fall anywhere from 1.5 to 9.5 per cent. Aside from that, Brexit means that the UK has to renegotiate trade deals not only with the EU, but also with each of the 65 countries that have trade deals with the EU.

While these implications are indeed serious, it is telling that the conversation has mainly focused on male-dominated sectors of the economy. At New Statesman, Sian Norris points out that conversations about Brexit have primarily focused on issues concerning men, and argues that what we choose to focus on when it comes to the Brexit debacle teaches us a lot about what society values most. She writes:

“Trade, manufacturing, and security dominate Brexit conversations. Most manufacturing jobs are male-dominated (in automation, for example, 84 per cent of workers are men). However, significant sections of manufacturing are dominated by women workers, such as textiles. Women make up 55 per cent of the employees in this industry, which is predicted to face a squeeze post-2019. This is rarely discussed.”

We hear far more about the potential impact of Brexit on male dominated fields such as mining (which consists of 84 per cent male workers) and motor vehicle manufacturing (an industry made up of 80 per cent male workers), than sectors like health and social care, which have, respectively, a 77 per cent and 80 per cent female workforce.

The Fawcett Society, “the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights,” and the Women’s Budget Group, “a network of leading feminist economists, researchers, policy experts and campaigners committed to scrutinizing government policy” from a feminist perspective, recently released a joint report on the potential impact of Brexit on women.

The report, published in March, shows that Brexit will have a negative impact on the UK economy as a whole, but will have a disproportionate impact on women, particularly vulnerable women. With the country in the midst of a governmental upheaval that recently saw two key cabinet members resign abruptly after Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May proposed a “soft Brexit,” (which would mean, among other things, exiting the European Union but keeping a membership to the EU single market and free movement of people), it is unclear what this policy will look like on the ground. But, the Women’s Budget Group and the Fawcett Society make the case that, among the possibilities discussed, a “hard Brexit” (leaving the EU single market and imposing tariffs and trade restrictions on each other) would be the most damaging and would pose a direct threat to “women as workers, as consumers and as users of public services.”

Future trade deals with countries outside the European Union could include stipulations granting more power to overseas companies, meaning rights and decision-making power that the UK currently takes for granted could be at risk. As a result, these companies would be able to sue the UK government if it decided to take measures that could diminish profit gains, for example, if the UK were to raise the national living wage and companies felt raising the living wage went against their economic interest. Moreover, Brexit has implications for employment rights that exclusively concern women. Many of the protections female workers have today are a result of policies that originated in the European Union or in the European Court of Justice. Among the provisions which are now on the table as potentially unnecessary is the pregnant workers directive.

In October 2017, then-Brexit Minister, Martin Callanan, argued:

“There is one action we could take right now to show businesses our commitment to growth. We could scrap the working time directive, the agency workers’ directive, the pregnant workers’ directive and all the other barriers to actually employing people.”

Needless to say, for women, protections for female workers who become pregnant, are not a trivial concern. Indeed, the fact that women can and do become pregnant has long been a means to discriminate against female employees.

As Norris explains:

“Employment rights matter to every woman. But they are perhaps even more pressing for workers in our lowest paid sectors, where people are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Once again, women are disproportionately represented here. In the UK’s lowest paid sector — care and social work — 80 per cent of workers are women.”

Aside from Brexit’s potentially harmful impact on gendered economic sectors, we need to talk about funding. The report says that, due to the economic impacts of Brexit, “the projected budget deficit in 2019-2020 will be an additional £20-40 billion” and that, by 2030, “assuming tax and spending remain constant as a proportion of GDP, the Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that public spending will be between £7 and £48 billion lower than otherwise.” Under patriarchy, a state’s budget deficit and cuts to public spending inevitably translates into bad news for women because services that are a matter of life and death to many of us — such as women’s refuges and rape crisis centres — are considered disposable and unnecessary.

Recently, cuts to women’s services in the UK have been severe. There is already a shortage of women’s refuges and there are not enough spaces for women escaping male violence. The available number of beds is currently 2000 beds short of the minimum standards set by the Council of Europe Convention on Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention). According to a leading women’s organization in the UK, Women’s Aid, cuts to funding have meant that almost a fifth of women’s refuges have closed since 2010. Meanwhile, the number of rape crisis centres has been cut in half in the past decade.

Charlotte Kneer, refuge manager for Reigate and Banstead women’s refuge in Surrey, stated during an interview with Sky News: “There are women calling every day needing a space and not being able to find one, and that is as a result of so many refuges closing.” Refuge workers are left in the harrowing position of having to turn women away. Women who, as Keer explains, have managed to gain “the courage to pick the phone up,” possibly after suffering many years of abuse, are told  “no, I’m sorry, we’re full.” The lack of spaces sometimes means that women must either seek out any safe friend or family member who can house her (and potentially her children) or face homelessness. In the worst-case scenario, she may have to return to the abusive partner.

The unprecedented cuts have put refuges for women in a dire state. In January, Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, a women and children’s shelter, said that government proposals to remove women’s refuges from the welfare system in a country where 50 per cent of refuge funding comes from housing benefits presented yet another threat to women seeking refuge:

“Under the Government’s proposals, housing benefit for a stay in a refuge will no longer be available to abused women but will be paid to the local council to fund services. Over the past few years local councils, which have seen their budgets eroded, are increasingly turning to cheaper hostel-style accommodation to provide emergency housing support. This ‘generic’ provision is not appropriate for women and children escaping domestic violence. Specialist refuges offer more than just a bed for the night, they are a highly specialized, national network of safety and support services for women and children”.

Add Brexit’s potential budget deficit and funding cuts to the services sector on top of all this, and it’s a recipe for disaster, not only for women’s services and refuges but, most importantly, for the women and children that depend on them to survive.

Brexit represents a political conundrum that has the potential to wreak havoc at any given moment, regardless of whether you personally support Leave or Remain. “There are no good choices,” Helen Lewis writes, at New Statesman. It may be that British women were as likely as British men to vote to leave the European Union (slightly more voted to Remain), but the potential impact on the economy sectors dominated by women and on crucial life-saving services like women’s refuges and rape crisis centres promises to have a devastating impact on women as a sex class, beyond political divides.

Raquel Rosario Sanchez
Raquel Rosario Sanchez

Raquel Rosario Sanchez is a writer from the Dominican Republic. Her utmost priority in her work and as a feminist is to end violence against girls and women. Her work has appeared in several print and digital publications both in English and Spanish, including: Feminist Current, El Grillo, La Replica, Tribuna Feminista, El Caribe and La Marea. You can follow her @8rosariosanchez where she rambles about feminism, politics, and poetry.

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  • oneclickboedicea

    Brexit is the British Trump, just without the orange hair.

  • Excellent article — and infuriating. If governments really cared about what happened to people, conversations like this would have been given extensive coverage before the vote.

  • お茶

    It’s not democratic if people don’t know what they are voting for. Even now the meaning of Brexit is not fully understood by anyone.

  • Tobysgirl

    Thank you for this reply from someone on the ground, so to speak. I really wondered about the doom and gloom. I read the Morning Star and they supported Brexit due to the huge amount of money Britain sends to the EU, which seems like a huge scam — my god, has anyone seen those buildings? Just what the world needs, more bureaucrats and managers making six-figure salaries. Yes, some of the voters for Brexit were xenophobes, but some of the voters were radicals who do not see the EU as an unalloyed blessing.

  • Tobysgirl

    One really does not need Americans of any stripe screaming racist to people in other countries.

  • DeColonise

    Don’t forget how good capitalism has been for the natural world also! (joking of course)

    • Robert Lindsay


      BTW I happen to agree with even some of the worst radfems that patriarchy/masculinitymale nature is behind a lot of environmental destruction.

      I also agree that the dark side of men is very dark and violent, and I would call it a death impulse. I have it inside of me, and I think all of us men do. It feels like a black hole of violence and rage, with a lot of homicidal fury and a sort of nihilistic urge to destroy other things in general, as much as possible.

      In contrast to men’s death urge to destroy others, females’ destruction urges are turned inwards. Females also have a strong life urge or Eros to counteract the Thanatos of men. Look at a male prison and a female prison to see the bad sides of women and men. A female prison is such a nicer place. A male prison is almost pure evil.

      I used to be a feminist who believed that if put women in power, the world would be so much better. After looking at how women in power behave, I no longer believe this. They’re as bad as the men. I am so disappointed!

  • Jani

    Well, I’m British and I don’t hate immigrants, and as I’ve always lived in the UK I’m not an immigrant in any other country. I’ve come across many, many EU people in the past 15 years or so and I don’t have any problem with them wanting to work and settle here. Yes, I do have relatives living in the EU but they’ve settled there are their kids were born there. Their kids are 100% citizens of the countries where they were born and don’t see themselves as belonging to any other country. The UK is a foreign land to them. My parents came to the UK from Ireland and back then the racism towards Irish people was awful, so I’ve always had another perspective, being the child of “immigrant” myself.

    The UK is NOT a nation of intolerance though. My community is very mixed and we all get on with our lives. Most people are respectful towards people of different cultures and countries of birth. I’m not saying every person is lovely and there’s no such thing as racism, because there is. But it’s incorrect to portray the entire population of the UK as hating immigrants and ruining other countries.

  • Jani

    That’s a very important point. In areas where asylum seekers were resettled, these were areas with very high unemployment and high levels of deprivation. The poorest areas had to absorb yet more disadvantaged people — people who had absolutely nothing and couldn’t even speak English — putting more pressure on services that were already stretched to the limits. And these were areas that already had high rates of crime, alcohol and drug addiction, high rates of long term ill health including mental health problems and so on. And suddenly new people are arriving and they’re needing help from the benefits system, the NHS, they need English classes, they need furniture etc. Yet the councils and NHS are already having to make cuts because of lack of funding AND by law must provide help for everyone in need. Which is nearly everybody.
    If the shire counties of southern England had to provide for these people and if the big mansion houses and stately homes were commandeered to provide accommodation, maybe that would actually be fairer and the people in power and their supporters might actually say “something has to be done to help these people”. And maybe they’d stop going to war with those countries or stop propping up corrupt regimes once they see the human cost. But no, they dump these people in the poorest areas of the poorest regions of the UK where everyone is struggling.

  • Meghan Murphy

    If a man hates all women because he’s encountered some shitty ones, I’d say that’s akin to hating all black people because some suck… It’s irrational and bigoted.

  • Meghan Murphy

    I think that ‘misandry’ is more of a joke than anything else… Women hate men as a class, due to what men as a class have done to women and girls over centuries… I don’t agree with those who say all men are inherently evil. There are plenty of individual men I like very much, but, at the same time, all men have been socialized as men, so those patterns will continue to make me angry (things like male entitlement, for example). If a woman has suffered at the hands of men her entire life, it doesn’t strike me as particularly ‘bigoted’ that she might want nothing to do with men at all, and understand them to be a horrible group of people. Women simply can not have harmed men as much as men have harmed women. They don’t have that kind of power or the ability to.