It should come as no surprise that Britain sent nine men and only one woman to Brussels to negotiate our exit from the European Union.
Women have been sidelined ever since the EU referendum was announced in February 2016. Men dominated 75 per cent of television coverage and 85 per cent of print media coverage during the referendum campaign. The relevant select committees have been chaired and dominated by men. Other than the Prime Minster, all the relevant Cabinet ministers − David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox − are men. And the government White Paper on Brexit, which mentioned ‘trade’ five times, ‘consumers’ seven times, and ‘business’ nine times, thought to mention ‘women’ and ‘equality’ a grand total of zero times.
But just because it is not surprising doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Studies of political decision-making conducted over the past 30 years in America, Britain, India and across the OECD have all consistently found that female politicians are more likely both to raise women’s issues, and to support legislation that addresses them.
Compare this with the all-male group that gathered around the US President as he signed legislation reinstating the ‘global gag rule’ which prevents any organization that receives US aid from even mentioning abortion; or the all-male group that proposed removing maternity care from the list of healthcare needs American insurance plans must cover.
It may seem to be stating the obvious that in order for women to speak about women’s issues, first they have to speak, but given the huge imbalance on the British negotiating team, it is a highly pertinent point. The evidence shows that women only participate at an equal rate in discussions when they are in ‘a large majority’ (interestingly while women speak less when they are in the minority, men speak the same amount no matter what the gender proportion of the group).
And we need someone to speak up for us, because there is no doubt that Brexit poses a grave threat to women’s rights. Right now, it is EU law that ensures British women receive equal pay for work of equal value. It is EU law that means part-time workers, 75 per cent of whom are women, receive the same pay and pensions as full-time workers. And it is EU law that means that it isn’t cheaper for companies to discriminate against women and pay a fine, than it is to treat them fairly.
There are other laws that the EU hasn’t managed to pass, such as the increase of statutory maternity leave to 20 weeks on full pay − women in the UK don’t get a single week of full pay. This proposal remained in stalemate for several years, and has finally been abandoned. Who do we have to thank for this? In no small part, the UK and its business lobby who campaigned strenuously against it. The women of the EU may therefore be better off without us − but how will we fare without them?
The Brexit White Paper engages in worryingly vague caveats on this issue: ‘The government is committed to strengthening rights when it is the right choice for UK workers.’ When are we to surmise that strengthening workers’ rights is not the right choice for UK workers?
This was the question asked by Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, during a speech in which she proposed an amendment to the Article 50 Bill heralding Britain’s departure from the EU. Phillips’s amendment is a rather neat example of how it often takes a woman to speak up for women’s rights. It asked for women’s working rights to be guaranteed and for the UK to continue to work with the EU to protect women from domestic violence − a hardly revolutionary request that was rejected.
Beyond workers’ rights, one of the key ways in which the UK benefits from the EU is funding. The UK government has pledged to guarantee any funding that has already been agreed − although once again we find it engaging in vague caveats. Projects must be ‘good value for money’ and ‘in line with domestic strategic priorities’ − but no definition is provided of what those subjective judgments mean.
The EU’s main academic funding stream for research into violence against women is the Daphne programme. Will Daphne be considered ‘good value for money’? Maybe. But on the other hand, women in this country are currently suffering from a £10 million funding gap in sexual violence services, so maybe not.
Even if the government does cover EU funding, that doesn’t mean it will include the same stipulations − and again, the impact on women could be severe. Medical research funded by the EU − Britain received nearly €8.8 billion between 2007-13 − must, where appropriate, include females as research subjects and break down its data by sex. UK funding bodies currently make no such requirements.
The EU legislation has proved necessary because researchers continue to disproportionately research men, in part because it is cheaper and easier. But cheaper and easier isn’t a good enough reason when not testing on women means that women are almost twice as likely to have an adverse reaction to a drug than men, are more likely to be treated in hospital for that adverse reaction, and when 80 per cent of drugs withdrawn from the market are due to unacceptable side effects in women.
Research is also emerging showing that certain drugs react differently in women’s bodies at different phases of our menstrual cycle. Will women’s health be considered a ‘domestic strategic priority’?
The likelihood is that the exclusion of women from the debate so far has not been malicious, so much as simply unthinking − indeed, the fact that David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, embarrassed himself in front of the House of Lords EU select committee by not being able to say how many women there were on his team rather underlines this hypothesis.
But thoughtlessness is no defence in law and it is no defence here. In 2017 it is simply not good enough that the team negotiating our exit from the EU is almost exclusively male. More to the point there is no need for it: women now make up 32 per cent of the House of Commons and 40 per cent of the senior civil service. Including women in the Brexit negotiations is a matter of social justice − and the government must address this issue before it’s too late.