The EU Referendum was positioned by proponents as a moment of political activation and ownership for the UK. For women, however, the reality was starkly different. Even at the outset, women were noticeably absent from the Brexit debate as it played out in the press, and although there were modest improvements in media representation as time went on, the broader trend continued throughout the UK and EU Brexit negotiations. With the current government attempting to brand itself as “the party of equal opportunity,” all of this has prompted us to ask: where are the women?
The political debate as to whether the UK should remain within the EU was dominated by men from the start. A study of the UK’s news coverage between May 6 and May 18, 2016, showed that during this period women featured in a mere 16% of TV appearances and 9% of press articles focused on Brexit. This extreme underrepresentation led Labour MP Harriet Harman to submit a formal complaint to Ofcom—the UK communications regulator—about the predominance of men in the televised debates. Her views were echoed by several other politicians, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democrat Shirley Williams, who criticised the Brexit discourse for turning into a giant mansplaining exercise.
As a result, the shortage of women’s voices in the debate attracted more public scrutiny, which in turn influenced the strategies deployed by the Leave and Remain campaigns. Both ITV’s EU debate and the BBC’s ‘The Great Debate’ featured five women and just one man on the debating floor. Similarly, women’s TV and newspaper appearances increased by around 15% and 5% respectively. However, at no point did the proportion of women in the media exceed 20%, and Conservative Party MP Priti Patel was the only woman to be included in the overall top 10 most prominent referendum campaigners. Also worth noting is that even when they were featured, women were much more likely to be portrayed as ordinary citizens than as politicians, experts or business spokespeople.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum there were some highly visible instances of women influencing the conversation around Brexit. For one, businesswoman and activist Gina Miller dominated headlines with her landmark legal challenge against the Government’s ability to trigger the Article 50 process without Parliament’s consent. (Read our interview with Gina Miller here.) And, of course, Theresa May became the UK’s second woman Prime Minister, with the responsibility for leading the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. (That she comes to the position under such politically charged circumstances looks suspiciously like a glass cliff, but that’s a conversation for another day.) Nonetheless, it remains difficult to overlook the fact that the EU and UK have entered into the Brexit negotiations with just one woman on each of the official negotiating teams.
Interestingly, the marginalization of women throughout the Brexit discourse is not limited to Westminster. Research suggests that both the Leave and Remain campaigns did not produce high quality political engagement for women, with men being twice as likely to feel well-informed about the EU referendum. Furthermore, the campaigns’ disregard of matters that disproportionately affect women, such as healthcare and employment rights, in favor of “high salience issues” such as trade and immigration, contributed towards lower levels of engagement for women during and after the referendum. To be clear, women were not actually less informed than men, but the impact that Brexit would have on women’s lives was largely unaddressed in the public discourse.
In response, major women’s organizations and policy agencies have made a considerable push to bring these matters to the forefront of the Brexit negotiations. For example, The Fawcett Society, a UK charity that campaigns for gender equality and women’s rights, launched the Brexit-neutral action group #FaceHerFuture, with the goal to protect women against the negative effects of Brexit. Another group, Women for a People’s Vote, aims to widen the Brexit debate to include issues faced by ordinary women on a daily basis, while the Women’s Equality Party seeks to tackle the inequality challenges that Brexit presents for women.
While these groups are open to men and women, their membership is predominantly female. Perhaps their focus on bringing women’s issues to the forefront of the Brexit discourse will increase the number of women engaging in the debate, which could be a first step to drawing some of these women into politics more broadly.
These Brexit-specific women’s initiatives come at a time of concerted efforts to increase the representation of women in UK politics. 2018 marked the centenary celebration of the women’s vote in the UK, and in connection with the commemoration, various initiatives were launched to improve women’s representation in politics generally and in Westminster in particular. For example, the 50:50 Parliament Campaign launched its #AskHerToStand initiative, which aims to encourage more women to stand for Parliament. Likewise, Girlguiding, the UK’s largest youth organization for girls, recently introduced its updated programme, which includes several new badges—Voting, Campaigning, Protesting, and Women’s Rights—aimed at getting young girls involved in politics.
With the UK’s departure from the EU now looming, it seems unlikely that more women will become involved in the Brexit negotiations. Yet, paradoxically, the debate’s lack of focus on matters that are of greater significance to women could prove to be a watershed moment in women’s political engagement in the UK. Let’s hope that this proves to be the catalyst for increasing women’s involvement in carving out the UK’s future in our brave new Brexit world.
Martha Hirst is a trainee associate in Debevoise’s London office.
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