#ParentsAtWork: how the EU referendum has opened the door for women, but risks closing it for parents

EU Referendum, Brexit opened the doors for women but maternity, paternity and shared parental leave at riskThis month, following the recent EU Referendum results, rather than the usual #ParentsAtWork interview, I am sharing hopefully a balanced (though admittedly somewhat speculative) view of what may be to come for women and parents in the workforce in the UK. Throughout this blog post, I have linked to other related articles that you may find interesting. 

History has sadly taught us that in times of unrest, uncertainty and economic instability, it’s the minorities that tend to suffer. Minorities come in all shapes and sizes, from race to social class to hair colour (cue standard ginger joke) and of course gender.

The government goes into crisis mode, priorities are reordered and limited budgets are allocated based on how best to serve the majority (one would hope).

So the question is, what does that mean for the perceived minority that is parents – which unfortunately often boils down to women – at work?

This is a man’s world (and debate)

Unfortunately, as has been the case for hundreds of years in politics, this was a predominantly male debate.

Liz Hurley's Instagram feed supporting Brexit posing with a strategically placed Union Flag

Liz Hurley took to Twitter and Instagram to show her support for Brexit. Not surprisingly, the media managed to find space for her…

Even the famous faces publicly supporting either side were predominantly male – David Beckham, Richard Branson, Patrick Stewart, Stephen Hawking (all Remain) and Michael Caine, John Clease and Ian Botham (all Leave) to name but a few.Barbara Judge, chair of the Institute of Directors rightly questioned, ‘have women chosen to be absent from the debate, or have they been sidelined?’

The political female voices who did speak out – Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Harriet Harman, Gisela Stuart, Jess Phillips (all Labour MPs) and Caroline Lucas (Green Party) – unfortunately didn’t shout loud enough. Even Theresa May, despite coming out early on as Vote Remain, went quiet over the last few months (though, that may be a blessing in disguise as she may be our best hope for for Cameron’s replacement – more on this in a moment).

Women yield about 1 million more votes than men in the UK, having a slim but significant population majority. Poll after poll showed that the majority of those unsure which way to vote were female. Women were arguably the key to the Leave or Remain campaign’s success. Yet no one seemed to be trying to offer up arguments that would truly engage women in the debate.

Or perhaps they were… I was shocked in my research for this blog post to find that in 2014, ahead of the general election, Mumsnet’s research found that women were more concerned by immigration than male voters, and that it was more likely to affect how they voted. (Men were found to vote based on the economy.)

Post-Brexit vote reports are focussing on the divide between the young and the old. Is this because there wasn’t a clear difference between how men and women voted? Or because no one wants to open that can of worms?

Come what May…

British politics has moved incredibly fast in the past five days and when I first started writing this piece, I was questioning whether parents’ and carers’ issues were about to become lost amongst the turmoil, marginalised by more ‘pressing’ issues such as a national divide or the shocking racism sweeping parts of the nation.

Theresa May announcing her PM candidancy

Theresa May announcing her candidacy on Thursday.

Then, not even a day before it was due to go live, I had to pull the post and rewrite most of it as Theresa May announced her candidacy for the leadership. And everything changed.Angela Eagle is also looking like a promising candidate for the Labour Party, meaning we are suddenly looking at a very real possibility of a female PM come autumn, potentially alongside the first ever female President.

The women are coming. And they mean business.

But just because we may have women in power, doesn’t mean parents, carers or even women’s issues suddenly become the central governmental concern.

The only precedent we have is Thatcher, who did nothing for women’s rights during her time in Parliament. A wife, a mother of two, a woman with ambition in the height of the second wave of feminism and yet she showed not one iota of sympathy for the sisterhood.

As with all MPs, May’s record is not untainted, but having worked previously as the Minister of Women and Equalities between 2010 and 2012, she’s arguably well positioned and well informed to bring women’s issues into the spotlight. She has spoken out in the past that women must not attempt to be men, that there are differences between men and women that should be celebrated and that women shouldn’t be afraid to do things ‘their way’. (Arguably a scathing review of Thatcher’s approach then – good news all round!)

The EU is pivotal to women’s rights… or is it?

Harriet Harman furiously campaigned for Remain on the basis that EU membership guarantees a bottom line, a basic level of rights on issues such as parental leave and equal pay. Sturgeon’s Scottish Remain campaign also pushed heavily on the gender equality message, focusing on women’s rights.

Equality is arguably in the very foundations of the EU, with ‘equal treatment’ being a founding principle in 1957 and from a women’s perspective, 37% of European MPs are women (versus Britain’s 29%).

However, prior to the vote, Gisela Stuart hi-lighted how the UK government has gone above and beyond EU law to offer women up to 52 weeks maternity leave (with up to 39 weeks paid leave – albeit, a lowly £139 per week for 33 weeks of that, which for most parents in the UK, is hardly a living wage for that ‘year off’. But that’s an argument for another blog post!).

While EU law currently requires a minimum of just 14 weeks maternity pay, including protection for self-employed women and paternity leave rights, encouraging men to take at least one month’s leave by not allowing it to be transferred to their partner instead (ie, use it or lose it).

Non-EU countries round the world have a wide range of parental leave rights. While the US – who may become our only ally at this rate – offers zero of anything (yes, really), Albania and even Bosnia and Herzegonia offers 52 weeks maternity leave with between 50% and 100% of a woman’s salary for the duration, though neither nation offer much of anything for dads.

Switzerland, who many Leave campaigners heralded as a role model for the UK post-Brexit, only offer 14 weeks maternity leave at 80% pay (up to a limit) and no leave options for dads.

Norway is the only non-EU nation in the world with a remotely equal offering: 35-45 weeks mat leave (100% pay for 25 weeks or 80% for 45 weeks) and up to ten weeks for dads at between 80% and 100% pay.

I’ll be honest, when I started the research for this blog post, I didn’t realise how good British parents have it – particularly since the introduction of shared parental leave last year. Britain stands tall as a great example of good practice in equal opportunities for all parents  – regardless of gender – to take the role of caregiver in a family and be able to maintain a career should they choose to do so. (I write this purely from a legal perspective and not taking into consideration cultural perceptions at this point.)

But the EU has also allocated over €6 billion to achieving gender equality by 2020, including eliminating the gender pay gap, strengthening women’s entrepreneurship and helping women into the labour market. Now out of the EU, we are no longer eligible to apply for that funding. Our government now needs to create equality schemes and find funding from elsewhere to help maintain Britain’s progressive position on parental issues and gender equality. (No pressure guys…)

The issues of working parents, become the issues of working women (again).

Putting aside the speculation on what may or may not happen in legislation, sadly, I fear the debate around parents’ and carers’ rights risks a major backward step in the wake of the EU Referendum.

Articles show that this is very much a women’s issue once again – something I argued it indeed was not in a recent blog post, The F Word. Everyone is talking about maternity leave, maternity pay, women’s funding. These are all hugely important, yes, but talk of shared parental leave, leave for other parenting groups (e.g. adoption or surrogacy) or even for those looking after elderly parents has all but ceased to exist in this debate.

If the conversation reverts to a debate about solely women’s rights and issues, then we will never truly gain gender equality. A conversation about women’s rights, removes others from that primary caregiver role, meaning that the nursery run, being home in time to make the kids’ dinner or to run Grandad to the hospital for another round of tests are only women’s jobs. And that simply isn’t (or at least shouldn’t) be true. If we never expect anything of men, they will quite rightly never step up to the plate.

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 13.51.02

Angela Eagle is in poll position for the Labour leadership.

Neither Eagle or May are parents, to which some may argue they risk being unsympathetic. On this note, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say, no. They may not understand the daily struggle first hand, but they had mothers, they have friends who are parents. As long as they have the foresight to surround themselves with a strong cabinet, many of whom will experience the pull between home and work-life balance firsthand (Jess Phillips spoke on this very subject at Mumsnet’s recent WorkFest16 event for instance) then, in my very humble opinion, I think we’re in good hands.Eagle’s experience as Minister of State Pensions and Ageing Society may be of particular use in this arena, suggesting an interest and understanding of caregivers’ needs, even if this experience is primarily with the elderly.

Hello? It’s the 1970s calling, they want their feminism back.

So in the wake of Brexit, as the UK figures out how to move forward, parents and carers need to stand together.

We must not be marginalised as the government – whoever ends up leading it – steers the country in its new direction, potentially battling horrendous xenophobia, national divides and economic mayhem.

Now, more than ever, we need to stand together to ensure we don’t lose the ground we have so successfully gained over the recent years in flexible working policies, part time working and the wider acceptance of shared parental leave. Because if we let this become all about women once again, we will only slow the progress, returning to where we were in 1970. (Harsh, but very possibly fair.)

As Anne-Marie Slaughter discusses in her book, Unfinished Business, we must elevate the issues and respect for all carers, regardless of gender or the age of their charges. Because ultimately, it’s our families, and therefore our children’s futures, that will suffer.




5 thoughts on “#ParentsAtWork: how the EU referendum has opened the door for women, but risks closing it for parents

  1. Naomi says:

    This is a fascinating article! Thank you so much for sharing your research. I totally agree that we have to stand together and not let women’s issues become marginalised.

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