The EU Question and Women

10/06/2016 16:30 | Updated 10 June 2016

According to an ICM poll for the Fawcett Society, women are more than twice as likely to be undecided as to how they will vote on June 23rd. They are also less likely to state that either the 'Leave' or 'Remain' camp has addressed their concerns.

To many, this won't come as a surprise. The campaign trail on both sides has been dominated by men. There is hardly a woman in sight in the televised debates and interviews, with David Cameron, Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove taking centre-stage.

The few attempts by the campaigns to engage women have centred on claims (and counter-claims) about the price of utilities and groceries, vulnerability to assault from migrants (this courtesy of Nigel Farage, though others in the official Leave camp have distanced themselves), and employment rights and protections.

The argument around employment rights by the Remain camp is probably the most prominent (see for example the TUC's report). And it is in many respects a compelling one. Equal pay for equal work made its first appearance in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, though interestingly not because the founding fathers (and they were mainly men) of the EU were feminist but rather for economic reasons. Some countries - notably France - had adopted equal pay legislation and feared that countries without similar legislation would be at a comparative advantage due to lower wage costs. The equal pay principle set out in the Treaty of Rome became the basis of the 1975 European Equal Pay.

So while the advent of equal pay in the UK is often traced to the strike of the Dagenham machinists, in truth the UK legislation was narrow in scope providing equal pay only for the same work or for work of the same grade. It took action by the European Court of Justice in 1982 to gain acceptance of equal pay for work of equal value.

EU directives have also been responsible for a number of other key protections, including guaranteeing a minimum of 14-weeks maternity leave, health and safety protection for pregnant workers and paid time off for ante-natal appointments, equal pay for part-time workers (the majority of whom are female), and strengthened protection against dismissal while pregnant or on maternity leave.

But there are reasons to be cautious about reducing the EU question and its implications for women to one about employment protections. For a start, these are protections that some of the staunchest proponents in the Remain camp, including David Cameron and the business lobby, have sought actively to water down and may continue to, if the referendum goes their way.

In addition, and perhaps more worryingly, Roberta Guerrina of the University of Surrey has warned that the focus on employment risks the 'ghettoisation' of gender concerns. She argues that the unintended gender effects of mainstream EU policies may, therefore, be overlooked. She goes on to state that "[t]here is clear evidence that traditionally 'gender-neutral' policies, e.g. economic and monetary policy as well as security and defence, have unintended (gender) consequences."

Guerrina's warnings are particularly prescient at a time when the EU and its member states continue to pursue an austerity politics that has had deeply gendered consequences. But it also relates to employment directly. As Özlem Onaran of the University of Greenwich notes, the EU Commission and members states have encouraged wage moderation, "explicitly recommending real wage growth below productivity growth to increase the international competitiveness of the countries [in the EU]". Onaran argues that, over the course of three decades, this has led to increasing inequality, 'low road' labour policies, and fewer or worse jobs in the name of flexibility. Women, she argues, have borne the brunt of these developments. So while there may be explicit protections for women workers, it could be argued that women's position in the labour market has been weakened by the EU's approach to the labour market as a whole. Of course, it could also be argued that the pressure to pursue such 'low road' policies were global in nature and may have been felt in any case (and perhaps felt even more intensely in the UK, given our propensity to argue for labour market flexibility on the European stage).

So, what's the answer? For Onaran, it is still to remain in the EU because it provides greater political and economic opportunities for progressive change than isolationism. Moreover, others argue that the sheer prospect of the project job losses following Brexit, which no doubt will hit low paid workers (the majority of whom are women) hardest, is reason enough to stay. But there are also a number of prominent women, most notably the Green Party's sole representative in the House of Lords, Jenny Jones and Labour MP and Chair of Vote Leave, Gisela Stuart, who argue that the EU is beyond reform and far from delivering on a progressive political project. One thing is clear, the public debate could benefit from a greater diversity of voices.

Want to hear more? Join the Women's Budget Group, LSE Gender Institute and CRonEM (Centre for Research on the European Matrix) for a panel discussion (including Roberta Guerrina and Özlem Onaran) 'EU and Gender Equality: Better off in, or out', on Monday 13th June. The event will be followed by a reception. No ticket is required, full details are available here

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