Staying in for women’s rights

With the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU approaching, Megan Stodel has been looking into the EU’s record on gender equality and women’s rights

, 20 June 2016

Women on the moveThere are numerous ways in which the EU promotes gender equality and women’s rights. Most obviously and most widely-discussed is legislation, particularly in the area of employment rights, and often legislation that would not have happened without its input. However, there are other important facets too, including funding, establishing principles and norms, data collection and analysis together with encouragement; where legislation is not enforced but certain approaches are advocated.

One of the most striking elements of the argument against membership is that the EU is unnecessary in this area, as the UK would act in the same ways to promote gender equality without it. However, the number of times that the UK government has dragged its feet or suggested, in retrospect, that legislation is unnecessary is a warning sign to me that our rights need more protection and advocacy than we can rely on our government alone to provide.

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Women in work

The idea of equal pay for equal work was one of the founding principles of the EU, enshrined in the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Although the UK had its own Equal Pay Act, enacted in 1970 as a response to the strike action of the sewing machinists working for Ford in Dagenham, this was limited to giving women the right to equal pay with a man in the same job or the same grade. It was only when the European Commission took legal action in 1982 against the UK for failing to comply with EU law that the Equal Pay Act was expanded to include a right to equal pay for work of equal value. That nuance has affected hundreds of thousands of women, often in low-paid jobs, who have been able to challenge employers undervaluing their work. And further than that, the EU made it clear that the UK can’t impose a compensation cap on equal pay claims, even if the discrimination they have endured was acknowledged by the courts.

What’s more, equal treatment of part-time workers has been promoted by the EU, which means things like such workers – the majority of whom are women – having equal access to pensions.

So although the UK hasn’t exactly eliminated the gender pay gap, it’s almost certainly doing better than if it was able to ignore EU directives on the matter.

Much of the Leave campaign’s argument rests on how unnecessary EU regulation is, but I fear that without it, we would see backsliding and women would lose protection of their rights

Beyond equal pay, the EU also makes life better for parents in work. For example, in the UK, employers used to be able to dismiss pregnant women on the grounds that they would dismiss a man who couldn’t work for medical reasons. The EU ruled that this wasn’t equivalent and recognises that pregnancy discrimination is automatically considered sex discrimination. The EU also allows women on maternity leave to continue accruing holiday pay, something we know the UK might well not have put in place without that directive, given that it took them a while to get on board with it.

To me, these are all positive things, but they aren’t guaranteed to stay if we leave the EU. Brexit campaigner and MP Priti Patel has claimed that complying with EU regulations costs the UK £33 billion a year, but she includes in that figure regulations relating to part-time work, gender equality and parental leave. Much of the Leave campaign’s argument rests on how unnecessary EU regulation is, but I fear that without it, we would see backsliding and women would lose protection of their rights.

And Nigel Farage has made it clear how important he thinks maternity pay is:

I can’t believe the people spearheading the Leave campaign have the best interests of women in work in mind.

Violence against women and girls

The EU takes a zero tolerance stance towards violence against women and girls. One of the ways this is promoted is through its Rights, Equality and Citizenship programme, which funds transnational grassroots activities designed to combat this. For example, the REACH project in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was funded under the Progress programme to raise awareness of and reduce demand for sex trafficking, with an app developed to train frontline professionals who might be in contact with women and girls at risk.

This stance goes alongside the EU’s commitment to eliminating female genital mutilation (FGM), of which the UK has a high prevalence relative to other member states. The European Commission plans, among other actions, to “target relevant professionals and aim to prevent FGM and to support victims…encourage Member States to strengthen their child protection systems…[and] finance activities developed by NGOs that aim to prevent violence against women and children, as well as informing children of their rights and fostering respect of their right to be heard”.

Gender, immigration and asylum

The UK can be a hostile place for immigrants and asylum seekers, with some of the worst rhetoric around the EU demonstrating xenophobic and racist attitudes. It’s saddening but not surprising to see how this manifests itself in government decisions, the latest of which spawned a consultation around the idea of increasing court fees for asylum and immigration tribunals by more than 500%.

Simply remaining in the EU does not solve this. But I would rather be part of an organisation that is based on principles of free movement and shared experience rather than emphasising difference.

The EU’s response to the large number of refugees from Syria needing asylum has involved funding and humanitarian assistance, but it has been far from perfect. There are thousands of people who live in danger following their flight from their homes; their fates far too reliant on the whimsical outlooks of nations whose citizens waver between sympathy and fury. I want to see the EU prioritising the well-being and safety of refugees. However, I believe that without the EU, even the limited cooperation we have seen so far between members negotiating about these people’s futures would be gone. The UK’s response would surely be even more protective of its own shores, not even entering into the discussions that is has deigned to be part of so far.

Given the EU’s higher proportion of women in parliament, I am not surprised by its historic tendency to be more progressive on matters relating to gender equality

As the European Commission itself acknowledges, becoming a migrant or displaced person affects women and men differently, with effects felt in employment, education and social inclusion. To this end, the EU champions its European Migration Agenda, trying to address language difficulties, failure to recognise equivalent qualifications and addressing shortcomings in social and vocational integration measures.

Because migration necessarily involves multiple countries, it is particularly helpful to engage with transnational bodies on this issue. The EU is likely to be better placed to share knowledge and support integration of immigrants and refugees than the UK acting alone.

Women in positions of power

In the European Parliament, 37% of MEPs are women. It’s not the most inspiring figure when thinking about representation of women among people in positions of power. But compare that with the UK, where 29% of MPs are women – an all-time high. In fact, just looking at MEPs from the UK shows that we elected women as 41% of our MEPs.

So although it’s not totally equal representation, for some reason the EU is closer than the UK, even when considering UK-related representatives. And equal representation matters. Given the EU’s higher proportion of women in parliament, I am not surprised by its historic tendency to be more progressive on matters relating to gender equality.

Championing equal rights

Many women also belong to other groups that are discriminated against and it is important that these groups are also supported by a progressive agenda in the EU.

This is just a flavour, but the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states:

In defining and implementing its policies and activities, the Union shall aim to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, the Charter of Fundamental Rights states:

Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.

EU case law has interpreted discrimination on the basis of sex to include people who are discriminated against on the grounds of gender reassignment, so there is some degree of protection of trans rights, though this could clearly be better.

Millions of women benefit from the EU’s anti-discrimination stance, both relating to sex discrimination and discrimination they might encounter in addition to or combination with that related to being a woman

These principles have led to a number of positive results for these groups. This post outlines several for the LGBT community, including requiring the UK to add a specific clause on gender reassignment to the Sex Discrimination Act, establishing that same-sex civil partners should have equal access to marital benefits, and playing a part in the decriminialisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland, the equalisation of the age of consent and the Gender Recognition Act. Meanwhile, this post discusses how the EU has supported people with disabilities, including access requirements in public buildings, social funding that helped 87,000 British people with disabilities towards employment last year and non-discrimination employment rights being extended to small businesses. And the Race Directive adopted by the EU shifted the burden of proof to the employer to prove that they didn’t discriminate in cases of discrimination on the grounds of race and widened the definition of discrimination.

Millions of women benefit from the EU’s anti-discrimination stance, both relating to sex discrimination and discrimination they might encounter in addition to or combination with that related to being a woman.

Understanding gender inequality

Finally, but very importantly, the EU is a fantastic source of data relating to gender. Every year, it produces a report on equality between women and men. This reports on a whole range of areas, such as the ones I’ve talked about here. This means that statistics relating to gender equality across the member states are published regularly.

Ultimately, the referendum isn’t asking us whether the EU is a perfect institution. The question is whether we would be better off without it

This sort of work (including that carried out by the European Institute for Gender Equality) has a huge impact. Without it, we might not have such data published as regularly, or it might not be collected at all. We might not see comparisons between nations, or see the case studies that have worked for others. Data is important because it allows us to identify areas that need action and to assess the efficacy of that action elsewhere.

Coming from a trusted source, this can have meaningful impact among policy-makers and politicians in the UK. It helps us to put gender equality and women’s rights on the agenda and to show clearly where the UK is under-performing. I fear we would lack this sort of tool should we excuse ourselves from the union.

* * *

Although I respect and admire much of what the EU has done for women, I would like to see even more results and to have a government that is more responsive to the EU’s calls. In addition, I hold some reservations over the framing of some areas; for example, as Keoni Cabral suggests, the EU may be more interested in women working due to economic gains rather than principled progressivism, which is something I’ve worried about more generally before.

But ultimately, the referendum isn’t asking us whether the EU is a perfect institution. The question is whether we would be better off without it. All the evidence suggests that the EU promotes progress in a range of areas that the UK might not have pursued without being a member. With women more likely to be undecided ahead of the vote on 23 June, I urge you to consider how leaving could negatively impact the trajectory of the movement for women’s rights and gender equality – and vote for us to remain.



[Image is a photograph of most female figures sitting behind a blue table with microphones and an array of international flags behind them. The photograph is from “Women on the Move: Precarious Journeys”, an EU meeting in April 2016 to discuss the plight of women refugees. The photograph was taken by Colin Mahady, was found on Flickr, © European Union 2016 – European Parliament and is used under a Creative Commons License..]

Megan Stodel is a regular blogger for The F-Word, and once this referendum is over, thinks we seriously need to start talking about electoral reform again

Comments From You

Finebyme // Posted 20 June 2016 at 10:37 pm

Thank you for this article. As a discrimination lawyer and mother of a daughter, I could not look my daughter in the face in years to come if I voted ‘Leave’. The prospect of placing the rights of women (and others with protected characteristics) in the hands of our short-termism politicians – of whatever hue – is, frankly, terrifying. Think how much education (governed by mainly domestic, not EU legislation) is used as a political football, fluctuating wildly every five years at the whim of politicians interested only in the longevity of their own government. It would be the same for discrimination and workers rights in the event of a Brexit. Even maternity pay and leave will be in jeopardy, as we turn our backs on Europe and instead head towards the US model, where at a national level women have the right to only 12 weeks of UNPAID leave. There is NOTHING on women’s rights on UKIP’s website, and yet they are the ones who are leading our present government by the nose on this issue, and who will no doubt gain a de facto right to influence policy in the event of a Brexit. If that happens, we will no doubt look nostalgically back to the early 2000s as the high point of equal rights in the UK, and will sadly have seen the gradual erosion of those rights as the legislation is re-drafted, and ‘modified’ in the name of ‘promoting economic recovery’. A very sad prospect for indeed. As Megan’s article points out, this is not conjecture: successive UK governments routinely argues against the extension of the reach of anti-discriminatory legislation in the European court, and there is no way that they would somehow change their spots in the event of Brexit.

jodieleparapluie // Posted 21 June 2016 at 1:31 pm

Thank you so much for this article. Very informative :)

Jackie Bather // Posted 30 June 2016 at 3:07 pm

A very informative article, which is particularly poignant, given that the EU referendum has now taken place and it seems that the UK has voted to leave. I voted to remain and my focus was on two issues: women’s rights and immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe and Syria. I did not want to see either of these reduced. As I am writing ‘after he horse has bolted’, I am currently reading daily reports of racist behaviour taking place, on our streets and that is shocking. As for the women’s rights aspect, I do not know yet, what the consequences will be. It is a worrying prospect.

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