Brexit: A Female Perspective

Before the referendum, it was thought that women were more likely to vote against Brexit than men. Yet, the polls in the lead up to the referendum showed that most women were undecided on the issue[1] and on the day, it turned out that women largely voted in line with men.[2] This is in stark contrast to the 1975 referendum on membership of the European Economic Community when women represented an important part of the “remain” campaign.[3]

Many things have changed since 1975, but there are still a number of arguments that support the idea that women have more to lose from Brexit.

First, economic instability is likely to affect women more than men.

As with most countries, women are paid less than men in the UK.. 2017 data shows that there is still a significant occupational segregation in the UK. Women cluster in sectors that are lower-paying and tend to be in lower-paying or lower-skilled positions. Women also spend more time out of the workforce than men and tend to prefer part-time jobs as they usually take care of children and family.[4] The gender pay gap in 2017 is 17 per cent.

Such occupational segregation and gender pay gap can put some women in more vulnerable situations when there is economic instability. A study done by the TUC found during the last crisis, that women are likely to suffer from reductions in part-time hours. Moreover, as women in low-paid jobs also tend to have lower savings than men, the actual impact on these women are likely to be even more pronounced. The same study also found that unemployed women are less likely to qualify for benefits (e.g. Job Seekers allowance).[5]  Economic instability created by Brexit might therefore exacerbate occupational segregation and slowdown the economic empowerment of women.[6]

The negative impact of economic instability would not be confined to the labour market but might undermine the position of women also in the public sphere. Policy makers rarely promote equality in times of economic uncertainty but rather cut back on policies aimed at reducing social injustice; gender discrimination; and the wage gap. Economic instability created by Brexit might urge policy makers to reduce services aimed at activating and protecting women and to post-pone the debate over gender equality issues.[7]

Second, post-Brexit progress on women’s rights could slow, and potentially even be reversed.

Many of the advancements in working women’s rights enjoyed in the UK have been secured though membership of the EU, including equal pay; sex discrimination; and maternity rights.[8] Though EU legislation is now well integrated in UK law, it is also possible (if unlikely) that women’s rights could be reversed once the UK has left the EU. A more realistic concern would be moves to deregulate the labour market aimed at reducing the burden on employers might result in the elimination of rights that have been instrumental in empowering working women, enabling them to reduce the wage gap and to claim equality.[9]

Future progress may also be hampered by Brexit.  In particular, EU funds that have played a key role in allowing member states to achieve gender equality targets, will no longer be available to the UK after Brexit.[10] If the UK government does not address this funding gap, it is likely that this would slow down the implementation of policies to support women. For example, this could include, the suspension of important services, like childcare support which is key to encourage the participation of women in the labour market.[11]

Third, Brexit is likely to limit low skilled workers immigration in the UK which has proven to allow and ease the participation of women in the labour market.

The discussion over Brexit has focussed on the fundamental issue of a country’s sovereignty within the EU. Immigration has been central to this debate. The terms of the agreement with the EU will eventually determine the characteristics of the immigrants allowed in the UK and their relative numbers. But it is likely that:

  • there will be a contraction in the number of immigrants allowed from the EU; and
  • the contraction is likely to be greater for low skilled workers.

Empirical evidence shows that low skilled immigration has a positive effect on the number of hours worked by women. Several studies have shown that an increase in the supply of low skilled workers reduces the price of services such as child care, or care of the elderly, and allow women to substitute family activities with employed work.[12]

If Brexit were to reduce the number of immigrants working in the household service sector, as it is likely to do, women might need to shift some of their time back to these activities which would reduce their ability to work and weaken their economic and social position.

Conclusion

This discussion should be taken as an exploratory exercise of the likely impact of Brexit on women rather than definitive evidence, especially since the terms of Brexit are still to be negotiated. What is clear, however, is that Brexit creates risks to women’s rights and the position of women in the workforce.

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[1]    http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/2016/04/fawcett-society-icm-poll-reveals-eu-campaigns-failing-engage-women/

[2]    http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2016/11/23/we-should-ensure-womens-rights-are-safeguarded-in-the-brexit-negotiations/

[3]    http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2016/11/23/we-should-ensure-womens-rights-are-safeguarded-in-the-brexit-negotiations/

[4]    PWC (2017), “PWC Women in work index – Closing the gender pay gap”

[5]    TUC (2009) “Women and Recession.” https://www.ictu.ie/download/pdf/womenandrecession.pdf

[7]    Jenichen A., “What will Brexit mean for gender equality in the UK”

http://www.aston.ac.uk/lss/research/research-centres/aston-centre-europe/recent-publications/

[8]    TUC (2016) “Women workers’ rights and the risks of Brexit”

https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Women_workers_and_the_EU.pdf

[9]    TUC (2016) “Women workers’ rights and the risks of Brexit”

https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Women_workers_and_the_EU.pdf

[10]   Jenichen A., “What will Brexit mean for gender equality in the UK”

http://www.aston.ac.uk/lss/research/research-centres/aston-centre-europe/recent-publications/

[11]   Chevalier, A., Viitanen, T. (2002), “The causality between female labour force participation and the availability of childcare”, Applied Economics Letters, 9, issue 14, p. 915-918.

[12]   Cortés, P., and Tessada, J. (2011), “Low-Skilled Immigration and the Labor Supply of Highly Skilled Women.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 3(3): 88-123.