Well, in case you, too, were wondering what the EU ever did for women, you will understand why I took myself off to Europe House in Westminster on 25 October to find out. Maria Noichl MEP and Jackie Jones MEP were co-hosting a conference on ‘Women and Brexit – Assessing the Impact of Brexit on Women and Gender Equality in the UK’.
The hosts were there to present a report, co-authored by Mary Honeyball MEP and Hannah Mazur, Gender Policy Adviser at the European Parliament, which highlights the legal, economic, political, and social implications of Brexit, which specifically and disproportionately disadvantages women. It states that women are being expected to shoulder the costs of a political decision in which their voices and interests have not been fairly represented.
The panel speakers were all equally forthright and compelling; the first half of the event focused on the impact of Brexit on women in the UK, while the second highlighted input from the regional and EU level, including experts from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
So what did I learn? Well, it seems that future economic policies and trade agreements are set to reprioritise deregulation at the expense of women’s employment rights and equality standards. Austerity measures are expected to continue, and they will particularly affect women, who in turn will be expected to fill the health and social care gaps with their unpaid labour, widening the gender gaps for wealth, time, pay and pensions.
The fact is that women in the UK have benefited greatly from EU-wide legislation enshrining amongst other things, workers’ rights, maternity pay, holiday pay and employment standards. This is particularly noticeable when you consider a working woman’s entitlement to maternity leave in the EU. Female American colleagues were always astounded when I told them that a new mother in the UK could take up to a year off work following the birth of her baby, safe in the knowledge that her job would have to be kept for her as long as she returned within the year.
I’m not ignoring the fact that huge strides have also been made with regard to paid paternity leave, just that this conference shone a spotlight on how women’s lives will be changed after Brexit.
The speakers calmly and forensically homed in on areas that I had not even begun to consider: for example, the EU has led the way in protecting carers’ rights. It will come as no surprise to hear that the vast majority of carers in this country are women; any reduction in the already small allowances made to carers will severely compromise their financial status and impact them and the people they are caring for.
And then there’s Wales; one of the great ironies of the 2016 Referendum is that Wales as a whole voted to leave the EU. One wonders how many of the women who voted Leave were aware that Wales is a net beneficiary of EU funding, receiving £680 million per annum. This is of course due to the high levels of deprivation in Wales. The European Social Fund has done much to redress the gender imbalance in the Welsh economy. It has helped increase pay thresholds and provided long term funding that has allowed women’s support services to develop and consolidate. After Brexit, there are no guarantees that this will continue in a way that has proved so successful.
If the UK does leave the EU and life ends up not quite as rosy as that big red bus promised, this report provides us with a yardstick against which to measure whether the Government’s promises of a bright future actually materialise.