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.