Across the Brexit debate and in the 16 months since the referendum outcome, one part of society has been largely sidelined and mostly absent from discussions – women.
In the six weeks prior to the vote, men dominated the debate, with 75% of TV and 85% of print media coverage. Unfortunately this dominance has continued.
Aside from the Prime Minister, all the core Cabinet ministers − David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson − are men, with only one woman appointed to the UK Brexit negotiating team. This has prompted the comment that the team had “more beards than women”.
This throwaway comment belies a very real and obvious issue that is not to be trivialised, namely, the seeming exclusion of many sections of society, including women, in the discussions on the most significant issue facing us in decades. This will not deliver a solution that is representative, workable or equitable.
To date, the themes of the Brexit discussion have largely been focused on competing perspectives on immigration and the economy as a whole. This has crowded out the space for other necessary and critical conversations on healthcare, employment rights, security, higher education and social policy.
As with most other issues, Brexit will affect certain sections of society disproportionately, including women. Yet, this has not become a key aspect of overall conversations.
Evidence from OECD studies on political decision making has shown that it is women who are more likely to raise issues that will affect them. Therefore, it is unlikely that the homogenous UK negotiating team will do so. Hardly surprising then, that the Government White Paper on Brexit made no mention of ‘women’ or ‘equality’.
Who, then, will speak for women and others?
Women will be disproportionately affected by the rolling back of employment rights: they are more likely to take time off to care for young children and other family members, to be single parents and to be in part-time work.
Ordinarily, with employment law being a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, the Assembly, depending of course on how well it reflects the diversity of opinion, could provide checks, balances and mitigation where necessary. However, we have not had a functioning Assembly for nearly a year, which is already causing harm to many of our public services.
This absence is deeply concerning, particularly in the context of the EU Withdrawal Bill. Given this vacuum, the UK government has in effect carte blanche to rewrite and rework a significant number of legislative protections derived from EU law without proper scrutiny. Key government figures are already talking of the option of reducing maternity leave and other entitlements that the EU was instrumental in driving. In the context of this democratic deficit, women and others should be involved in the conversations at every possible opportunity. Unsurprisingly, groupthink seems to be overriding any consideration when it comes to women’s rights.
Despite a “Cri de Coeur” from the leave campaign on the importance of the NHS during the referendum, the UK is so dependent on women migrant workers, that Brexit will negatively impact on our quality of life due to the exacerbating of the shortage of health and social care workers in an already over-stretched service.
There could be a shortfall of up to a million care workers by 2037 if EU migration is restricted post-Brexit. Tellingly, according to a recent Labour Force Survey, 76% of the migrant workforce in the care sector was women. Yet again this outcome would disproportionately affect women and ultimately society as a whole.
We can’t ignore the impact of austerity on our politics which has created the context in which Brexit negotiations are taking place. Voluntary and community groups have all seen funding cuts in recent years, often disproportionately affecting women, young people and the most vulnerable. Such interventions are often financially supported by European programmes. For example, EU projects such as Daphne provide funding that support those who have experienced domestic violence.
Given that Northern Ireland already lags behind in terms of adequate legislation to protect women on coercive control and stalking, we can ill afford to lose important funding streams that provide much needed support.
A significant institution that we will lose post Brexit is the EU Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights. The UK Parliament’s Women and Equalities Select Committee was only recently formed and its influence is still to be felt. And of more immediate concerns, I can think of no other jurisdiction in the UK that needs a formalised voice for women more than Northern Ireland.
As a post conflict society, women are still fighting to have their voices heard. Across the peace-process, the people at the table then were predominately male, just as those most directly involved in conflict had largely been male. It was almost a foregone conclusion that the big issues would be thrashed out between groups of men sitting across a table. Even in 2005, academics assessing Northern Ireland post the Good Friday Agreement posited that a “lack of gender parity throughout Northern Irish society is a key factor in hindering the development of a new, shared future”.
Today, whilst the political representation of women has seen a modest rise since 1998, there is still a dearth of women in public life, and senior levels of policing and the civil service, with all departmental permanent secretaries solely men and only one woman in the senior team of the PSNI. That women may seem to take up more space in NI elected politics now is more a testament to their tenacity and pugnaciousness than indicative of a representative body politic.
Brexit has become gendered in a similar way. Some academics contend that the genesis of the referendum was borne from “typically elite male culprits who partly caused the leave vote”, the referendum being a result of a dispute amongst the “boys’ club” of the Conservative Party sidelining “women and immigrants from the discussion, transforming them into objects rather than subjects of the debate”.
The discourse so far has led some women MPs to comment that “Brexit is becoming just another job for the boys”. This simply cannot continue. That the voice on Brexit has become homogenised, is not only unjust, but is to fundamentally misunderstand something that is so multi-dimensional.
The United Nations has recognised the importance of women in negotiations. Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, adopted in 2000, called for the adoption of a gender perspective to consider the special needs of women during conflict, repatriation and resettlement, rehabilitation, reintegration, and post-conflict reconstruction.
However, UNSCR 1325 is not fully implemented in Northern Ireland. Indeed Alliance representatives who wrote to the UK Women and Equalities Minister in August on the need for Northern Ireland to have a voice on these important issues are still awaiting a response.
The poor inclusion of women and others in a meaningful way is certainly not down to a lack of women with the relevant knowledge or experience. Whilst many of the issues raised here are symptomatic of the much wider issue of a lack of gender and minority representation, in the remaining time left we must ensure that the voices at the negotiating table are not only inclusive, but reflective of our society.
No workable or practical solution can be found without a genuine spirit of inclusivity that will ensure all sections of society are heard. Whilst the decision to hold a referendum may have been caused by a boys’ club, we cannot afford for the outcome to be written by them too. It has been said that women are not written out of history, they are simply not written in. We must ensure that we are written in this time.
Sorcha Eastwood is a Brexit Adviser for the Alliance Party.