This year was supposed to be one of unalloyed celebration for women. And yet, 100 years to the day when the first women were able to vote in a British general election, the country’s departure from the EU threatens to turn the clock back decades.
Those first women approaching the ballot box on 14 December 1918 took a huge step forwards for gender equality. From that breakthrough followed all the other rights taken as a given today – from keeping your job once married to the right to equal pay.
And it’s unequivocally the EU that has driven so much of that progress – often dragging a reluctant UK kicking and screaming in its wake.
It was the EU that forced us (by taking us to court) to give women equal pay, as well as to pay part-time workers (who are mainly women) at the same level as full-time workers. The EU also forced us to introduce maternity leave to all working women and stopped employers from being able to fire women when they got pregnant. In short, the European Union has helped us to be the best version of ourselves.
Now, as we stand on the cusp of Brexit, all that progress could unravel fast. A serious economic downturn will undermine women’s rights on multiple levels. And it is the women who are already the most disadvantaged, that will be hit hardest of all. Because whether we end up with Theresa May’s deal or no deal at all, we’re likely to see lost jobs, reduced legal protections, cuts to vital public services and a squeeze on family budgets.
This bleak picture was spelt out back in March, in an independent report published by the Women’s Budget Group and the Fawcett Society, summarising the impact of a significant fall in GDP on women’s lives. It’s a depressingly predictable scenario. Sectors such as clothing and textiles have a majority female workforce – and are particularly vulnerable to increased trade barriers.
Increased tariffs and a weakened pound would mean higher food prices, hurting the poorest families – and the women trying to make ends meet at the heart of them – the most
Then there’s the prospect of further cuts to government spending on services – including the NHS, despite that fantasy £350m figure on the bus. Women are more likely to work in the public sector, and to use public services for themselves and their families, and so would be the worst affected by these cuts. And let’s not forget household budgets, mostly managed by women, would be under the cosh. Increased tariffs and a weakened pound would mean higher food prices, hurting the poorest families – and the women trying to make ends meet at the heart of them – the most.
A post-Brexit economic crisis could also roll back workplace rights, including parental leave, equal treatment and rights for part-time workers, into which group so many women fall as they raise a family or have to care for elderly relatives. It’s not hard to imagine a cynical boss saying “needs must”, as they claim that sacrificing employment rights and protections is justifiable to make workers more employable in a downturn.
What’s more, a poor deal with the EU would also make the UK vulnerable to pressure from other countries for trade deals that could compromise women’s rights at work, undermine their consumer rights – think chlorinated chicken – or reduce the quality of public services. It’s also all too easy to envisage a scene where a foreign company decided to sue the UK government if it took action they deemed to damage their business’s profitability, such as increasing the National Living Wage.
The bad old days of inequality are not so very far away. On this landmark anniversary of women getting the vote, it’s time to let democracy do its job. Let’s have a People’s Vote to safeguard gender equality and continue the drive towards a fairer world for us all.
Konnie Huq is a television presenter and supporter of Women for a People’s Vote