Thoughts on The UK in a Changing Europe's 'Brexit & Gender Conference' - By Rafaella de Freitas

Thoughts on The UK in a Changing Europe's 'Brexit & Gender Conference' - By Rafaella de Freitas

 A year from #metoo and #aidtoo we have to understand the impacts that women feel across all areas of policy. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Esther McVey, has confirmed that some families will be worse off with Universal Credit. Every year we know that from the end of October women are working for free compared to men. The austerity programme introduced in 2008 by Cameron has impacted women 86% than men. With female homelessness on the rise at one end, and the10% difference in male and female graduate employment we need to understand what is happening and why women are still more negatively impacted men?

I attended the Gender and Politics Conference by The UK in a Changing Europe to learn what experts were thinking about how these issues will manifest after Brexit. The panels and speakers were: 

Gender in the Brexit Debate 

Roberta Guerrina, University of Surrey   

Sophie Walker, Women’s Equality Party 

Lucy Harris, leavers of London 

Charlotte Galpin, University of Birmingham

Chair: Daniel Wincott, Cardiff University 

Gender, the economy and Brexit

Mary-Ann Stephenson, Women’s Budget Group              

Faiza Shaheen, Director of CLASS 

Julian Jessop, Institute of Economic Affairs 

Chair: Gemma Tetlow, Institute for Government 

Space, place and diverse experiences of Brexit

Lisa Mckenzie, Middlesex University

Rachel Minto, Cardiff University

Vivienne Hayes, Women’s Resource Centre

Chair: Sue Milner, University of Bath 

Next steps: challenges and opportunities 

Swee leng Harris, Legal Education Foundation 

Claire Fox, Academy of Ideas

Gina Miller, Transparency Campaigner and Founder, SCM  

Chair: James Millar.

In today’s world, ‘gender’ is a heavily charged word: it means a lot more than the binary of male and female. The existence of degrees in Gender Studies, gender being associated to identity and the use of gender in political discourse hints at the complexity of the word. The question is how to best understand Gender when in relationship to Brexit? Dr Guerrina, from the University of Surrey, explains that gender should be understood as a structure that underpins the economic and political framework and shapes opportunities. Structures cannot be isolated from the history and processes that shaped them. Understanding Brexit goes hand in hand with decoding the historical development of the UK: gender is key to this, as women only attained the right to vote in 1928.

Dr Guerrina views Brexit as a critical juncture; as a moment that allows for the shaping and redefining of outcomes faced by minimally represented groups. The sudden rupture generated by Brexit created a space for recognising and addressing that have been in place for decades. The downside: the opportunity was not taken advantage of, and rethinking structures that hinder growth and productivity were not a priority in the Brexit talks within Parliament. 

According to Dr Shaheen, without active and conscious work Brexit will cause inequalities to grow. This is particularly problematic considering that there are currently no objectives to lower inequality, and no aims or goals have been set out, except for May’s pledge to end austerity in the Conservative Part Conference earlier in the month. With the backdrop of the social and economic inequality experienced by women – with austerity and as the main care takers in society, as well as economically more vulnerable in part-time and zero-hour work – a recession is worrying. Inequality is not a priority for Brexit negotiations or policy and yet is a pressing concern for the welfare of women. 

The dangers of an economic recession after there is fear that economic protection will come at the cost of women, who are most likely to sacrifice their priorities to cater for those dependent on them. Consider a devaluation of the exchange rate: GDP £ Sterling would be cheaper, making food imports more expensive, translating to higher food prices. A potential scenario would be a fall in the exchange rate for GDP, pushing up the price of food. In this setting, low-income women are the shock absorbers, and will tend to sacrifice their needs to provide for the family; if food prices increase, it is more likely that the women will have to choose between eating and feeding the children; in austerity, government actions have life or death consequences.

As well as economic inequalities, Brexit seems to have brought out a dangerous wave of hostile and intolerant behaviour: not only towards women, but other minorities as well. These concerns are raised byBaroness Kennedy of The Shaws, who says thinks that leaving the EU could set everything back by decades.

These are very heavy consequences, and one is tempted to doubt whether it is really true that the costs of a recession and of austerity will fall on women:  are there any other ways of protecting the economy? And is it certain that Brexit will generate such a steep recession? These are two questions raised by Dr Jessop, who challenges the assumption that all Brexit scenarios will be negative. He argues that austerity is not only bad for women; it makes everyone worse-off. In economic downturn, the government will have to reduce government spending to protect GDP. 

If austerity is implemented and child benefits are cut, the whole family loses. And there are other ways to protect the economy, such as increasing income tax and corporate tax, which would be more detrimental to men. However, Jessop claims that focusing on individual losers detracts from understanding the bigger picture.  What the argument oversees is that there is no common goal and no achievable common good that will address everyone’s needs – thus, ignoring individual losers fails to comprehend the complexity of the situation and how any policy will affect different people in different ways. These inequalities should be actively addressed, rather than expected to be indirectly solved in the process of attaining the ‘bigger-picture-good’.

Apart from May’s pledge to end austerity at the Conservative Part Conference, there is little backing to the idea that women’s needs would be addressed by the government in potential a recession. Worryingly, the exclusion of women during the Brexit debate has been a theme: according to Dr Galpin, only 7% of the experts consulted were women. Walker indicated that only 9% of Brexit campaigns were run by women – how can it be assumed that women will be included in the post-Brexit conversation? If men run the conversation, how can women-specific needs be address?

The first step of change is recognising what needs to be changed. The research and work of experts who dedicate themselves to understanding the dynamics that consolidate inequalities are only one part of the solution – stereotypes, habits and misconceptions also have to be deconstructed in an individual level to generate societal change. In a decisive moment like Brexit, it is important for people to understand the influence they exert individually and as a group, and their role in shaping what is to come.  

Change does not only happen in Parliament, and the success of campaigns such as #MeToo and currently the#NotHim (#EleNao) campaign in Brazil against far-right presidential candidate, should indicate the importance of unity in addressing intolerance and inequality. 

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