What does Brexit—
—mean for women?
by Liz Ward
At the time of writing, there are 175 days until we leave the EU. At the time of writing I have Andrew Marr on in the background (other pundits are available) - his guests are still arguing about a second referendum. Andy Burnham just said there will be civil unrest in Manchester if we have one. Sadiq Khan is insisting we need one. The lady from the Daily Mail says we’ll all be OK. Why am I watching this?
I’m 26. I live in London. I’m from a small northern industrial town, and grew up as an only child in a single-parent family. I went to a state school, continued to university and enjoy gin and tonic. I rent a room in a house share, I recently bought a bike, I voted remain. Oh, and I’m a woman.
During the referendum campaign, the gendered impact of this once-in-a-generation debate was deafeningly absent. And, like it or not, once the rain has finally washed away every “I’m IN” sticker on every lamppost, we’ll be left with a New Normal. So what will it mean for women?
Women and migration
It’s a sobering and sickening truth that the Leave campaign was heavily dependent on immigration rhetoric, so let’s start there.
The UK has unequivocally benefitted from European migration over the last 20 years, with economic migrants bringing in a net contribution of £20 billion from 2000 to 2011. Female European migrants are vital cogs in our multicultural machine. So, think-tank Global Future believes that the UK is currently set to lose £1 billion a year thanks to post-Brexit closed-border policies.
Take our beloved NHS: 62,000 workers are EU economic migrant women, with one in ten doctors having graduated from an EEA country. We’re already seeing an NHS staffing crisis: closing borders and a hostile environment mean migration has hit a four-year low. And this is going to cost. Forget the Brexit bus claims of £350 million a week for the NHS. Dr Andrew Goddard, incoming president of the Royal College of Physicians, flagged the potential rising costs of employing overseas staff to replace those who would have come here from the EU. Estimates suggest employing overseas health professionals after Brexit could cost the NHS an extra £490 million a year just to maintain current staffing levels. £490 million pounds could easily pay over 8,500 nurses for a year. That’s at least 30 nurses for every NHS hospital trust in the country. Or it could have been.
Women and the economy
The UK has long been completely gender-blind when forecasting the economy. Despite women making up over 50 per cent of the population, governments fail to apply gender-responsive budgeting models and gender impact assessments when looking at economic climates.
It’s seemingly inevitable that the post-Brexit economy is going to shrink - anywhere from 1.5 per cent to 9.5 per cent of our GDP (Fawcett Society). And as the economy shrinks and the markets brace for Brexit, the use of zero-hour contracts and the gig economy are on the rise: precarious working patterns which disproportionately affect women.
Zero-hour contracts feature heavily in the care sector - an area of work dominated by women, especially immigrant women. It’s likely that job losses will be felt most keenly in sectors that trade directly with the EU - clothing and textiles, for example, heavily dominated by a female workforce.
At the same time, protections for workers – already compromised by successive governments – are being further eroded.
Before New Labour, we had a paucity of employment rights for workers. Their belief in a closer partnership with the EU led to many of our employment laws being updated and brought into line with the Working Time Directive: the EU afforded us protections, camaraderie, support.
Thanks to the EU we have the right to a paid holiday, a legal limit on hours worked, the right to a lunch break, and rights around disabilities, religious beliefs and childcare. Rights which many of us take for granted.
And it’s true that the EU Withdrawal Bill, intended to provide “consistency and calm” during this Brexit year, is written with a provision for the Working Time Directive. But anything in that bill could be up for debate by any incoming governments. Cameron himself presented the EU with an entire UK opt-out of the Working Time Directive during early negotiations (and consecutive Conservative governments have operated to unpick and unravel EU employment law).
Workplace protection is no longer to be taken for granted.
The state of the economy
The state of the economy – which according to the IFS, is facing budget deficits in 2019/2020 in excess of £20 billion a year (with the most drastic Brexit model pushing that figure to £40 billion) – will have an enormous effect on public services.
If the government continues on its path – and there is no indication that it will not - then we’re facing huge budget cuts. And that is terrible news for women, who by 2020 will already have borne 86 per cent of the total burden of welfare cuts.
This is in part because public services are consumed more heavily by women than by men. The social care workforce alone is 80 per cent women; women are also most likely to work for free when services are cut (like childcare or caring for elderly relatives), impacting the rest of our working lives, our mental and physical wellbeing.
And this risk heightens when considering women of colour. According to research undertaken by think tank The Runnymede Trust, BME women are far more likely to hold socio-economic positions highly vulnerable to cuts, and less likely to benefit from any favourable tax changes. Services in place that cater specifically to the needs of BME women are regularly the first to be cut under local authority austerity measures, with commissioners favouring more generic, wider-reaching services. Our most in-need sisters bear the hardest brunt of Brexit instability.
The gendered effects of a deficit go beyond public services: a fall in the value of the pound could cost average households in the UK £580 per year – felt most severely by the poorest households. “Women are the main managers of family poverty and the shock-absorbers of poverty, and in attempting to shield their families from poverty’s worst effects women tend to bear the brunt of the effects.” (Fawcett Society).
Again, a recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report notes that tax and welfare changes have already adversely affected women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and children.
There is still so much that is unknown. A lack of gender-intelligent economics means we won’t realise the true toll of Brexit until after the fact - and reinforces how devastatingly the lack of concern for women in society is. What of our struggle for equal pay? A 50:50 parliament? With men consistently at the forefront of the referendum debate, and taking up all the seats around the negotiation table, is our voice being heard? Time will tell. 175 days, to be precise.