Illustration by Grace Wilson

Why Women Will Suffer if Britain Leaves the European Union

On Thursday, the UK goes to the polls to decide if it wants to stay part of the European Union. But what would a Brexit vote mean for women?

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Jun 20 2016, 11:20am

Illustration by Grace Wilson

While most of the US has been swept up in the Trump media tornado, there's been something huge brewing up in Britain. In four days on 23 June, the UK goes to the ballot box to choose to stay or leave the European Union. The referendum vote, also known as Brexit (a play on "Britain" and "exit"), has been dubbed the European version of Trump: all-encompassing, toxic, and both involving overweight white men with terrible hair.

The lead up to the vote has been pitched at just the wrong level of "let's build a wall" style racism and apocalyptic fearmongering, represented by Vote Leave and Leave.EU on one side and Britain Stronger in Europe on the other. All campaigns have slung allegations at one another on issues like the economy, migrant rights, and sovereignty. Just last week, United Kingdom Independence Party and Leave campaigner Nigel Farage was accused of "inciting racial hatred" with a migrant-centered advertisement that's been compared to Nazi propaganda.

Brexit has taken over the discourse and culture of Britain like a barbarian scaling Hadrian's Wall. Students for Britain, an organization affiliated with the Vote Leave campaign, went as far as making Brexit-themed condoms (tagline: "It's riskier to stay in"). Just last week on the Thames–the river that divides London into north and south—a bizarre stand-off occurred between Leave and Remain campaigners on a flotilla of boats, with singer and Remain supporter Bob Geldof blasting Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now" at the Leave boats.

People were asking, 'Where are the women, where the people of color?' This really did look like it was the old boys' club.

Condoms and Thameside boat battles are funny at best, in poor taste at worst. But while policy issues such as economic regulation and immigration have been at the forefront of the headlines, women's rights have been shoved to the back-burner. A Loughborough University report found that only one in ten commentators who appeared in the press talking about Brexit were women. But the lack of female voices speaking up over the Brexit took a truly shocking turn on June 16 when outspoken Remain campaigner and Labour MP Jo Cox was shot and killed by a man who was reported to have shouted "Britain First" during the attack—the name of far-right organization ardently opposed to the EU and immigration.

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Jean Lambert is a London-based Member of the European Parliament, the directly elected legislative body of the EU. She says that she's disappointed with how the referendum has been depicted in the press. "People were asking, 'Where are the women, where the people of color?'" she told Broadly. "This really did look like it was the old boys' club. For a lot of people that's really alienating."

It goes without saying that the female vote counts, but both campaigns have alienated a demographic that makes up 50.9 percent of the British population. The Fawcett Foundation, the UK's largest women's rights organization, recently published an independent report showing women are twice as likely to be undecided in comparison to their male counterparts, meaning that women are the all-important swing vote.

"[However] it is important to note, when referring to statistics showing women as more likely than men to be undecided, that research has shown there is no gender difference in actual turnout," said Kymberly Loeb, a senior research executive at Britain Thinks, an independent strategy consultancy. "Neither side of the debate has really been able to land the individual impact of the referendum in terms of household finances, job security, and public serves—the local issues that we have found in our research often matter more to women."

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No one can accurately forecast what Britain will look like if it leaves the EU, but women may find themselves on the brutal receiving end of Brexit . "I think it's highly likely that if the UK leaves the EU it will result in a much more conservative administration being put into place. In that context, they will be hostile to equality law," said Christopher McCrudden, a professor of human rights and equality law at Queen's University Belfast.

"There are large parts of current equality law dealing with for example, pensions; dealing with equal pay for equal work of equal value or comparable worth; dealing with getting rid of actuarial considerations in insurance. All of these derive from Britain's current membership in the EU and it highly probable that they would come under attack."

Flowers laid outside Parliament for murdered pro-EU MP Jo Cox. Photo via Flickr user garryknight

Equality law will not only be threatened in the UK. "It's pretty clear that one of the concerns in the national capitals, like in Berlin or in Paris, if Britain left, it would give support to several other anti-EU bodies," McCrudden explained. "For example, [right-wing National Front leader] Marine Le Pen in France would be itching to have a quick referendum for France to leave."

"The EU would be weakened if there were to be a British exit. That weakness is going to communicate itself in terms of less aggressive equality law enforcement," he added. "In many countries, equality law is under pressure. One of the reasons it's not under more pressure because there was enforcement from the EU itself of these laws. If you take that enforcement away or weaken it, by example for weakening the EU's capacity generally, then you're going to weaken equality law enforcement." For the 260 million women living and working in the EU, that should come as a huge wake-up call.

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Former UKIP spokesperson and Leave campaigner Suzanne Evans doesn't believe that will happen. "The first Equal Pay Act in Britain was signed three years before we even joined the EU," she wrote in the Express. "[They] had already passed the Abortion Act and the Divorce Reform Act and made the contraceptive pill free on the NHS."

Get Britain Out director Jayne Adye agrees. "Women as well as men would have a greater say over the laws impacting them following Brexit. Their laws will be created by 650 MPs in Westminster, not by 28 unelected EU commissioners," she told Broadly.

While Evans is technically right that some legislation was passed, it took a legally-binding 1982 ruling from the European Court of Justice for Britain to ensure that "women's work" was judged equally as "men's work" of a similar level of skill, effort, or responsibility—and paid equally, too.

The UK courts did not interpret sex discrimination as including discrimination on grounds of pregnancy until the European Court of Justice made that clear.

If the UK did leave the EU, "the interpretation of legislation would not necessarily have to follow the interpretation given by the European Court of Justice," explained Kenneth Armstrong, a professor of European law at the University of Cambridge. While Leave campaigners argue that laws on women's rights would be tougher if incubated in the cosy Westminster bubble, "the UK courts did not interpret sex discrimination as including discrimination on grounds of pregnancy until the European Court of Justice made that clear," he added. It's also thanks to EU legislation that part-time workers have the right to equal pay of full-time workers—a state of affairs that disproportionately affects women, as 42 percent of them are in part-time work compared to 12 percent of men.

But with four days to go before the referendum, it turns out that good old apathy may have triumphed like a soggy drizzle on an British summer's day. "Interestingly," said Loeb, "when we asked people directly what they think will be the personal impact, they predict that life will continue exactly as before, expressing relief that they can 'now get on with things that really matter.'"