Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, Green Party member and MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, argues that a vote to stay in the EU is the best thing for women in the upcoming referendum.
Feminist Caroline Lucas says:
The opposing sides of the EU referendum debate don’t have much in common – and the tone of the debate so far suggests a bloody battle is approaching. But one thing the two teams do share is that they are dominated by men. Cameron, Boris, Alan Johnson, Lord Rose, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove – these are the names we’ve been hearing on the radio and the faces we’ve been seeing on TV. Women, it appears, aren’t invited to be part of this crucial debate.
Such a male-dominated discussion is, at least for me, extremely off-putting. So perhaps it’s no wonder that the proportion of women who say they don’t know how they’ll vote in the Referendum (20-25%) is nearly double that of men (10-15%), or that 43% of men are certain which way they will vote, whether that’s leave or remain, compared to just 29% of women.
At one level, the EU referendum matters to women in probably much the same way it matters to men. Take national security, for example. The incentive of EU membership has been the most powerful driver of peace and stability the world has ever seen.
It truly is an extraordinary story: after centuries of warfare, countries with different histories and cultures coming together, choosing to share some degree of sovereignty whilst keeping their own identities and traditions, in order to work together for the common good. This troubled continent, historically so prone to conflict, is now in the remarkable situation where a war between the member states is utterly unthinkable. And clearly peace is good for all of us.
But being in Europe also means the UK is bound by common rules which ensure protections for women in the workplace, tackle gender discrimination, and fight against income inequality. From maternity leave and work protections during pregnancy, to rules preventing harassment and unequal treatment at work, women in Britain benefit from EU protections every day. These rules – which span the continent – help halt a race to the bottom of firms trying to find the least protected workforce where workers enjoy the fewest rights.
This referendum is about the new mother who can spend time with her children without having to give up her job. It's about the cleaner on a zero-hours contact who is free to go for a scan in work time. And it's about the graduate on her first job who is protected from being paid less by her sexist boss.
One clear example of how the EU been beneficial to women is equal pay. In 1975 the EU Equal Pay Directive of 1975 redefined "the principle of equal pay for men and women” as being “for the same work or for work to which equal value is attributed”. It sounds complicated but the effects are simple: women get equal pay for work of equal value. A woman working in a school canteen, for example, may be entitled to the same wage as a refuse collector.
When the UK Government made no attempt to amend the Equal Pay Act to take account of the 1975 Directive, the Commission issued proceedings in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and in 1982 the ECJ ruled in favour of the Commission. The UK was then obliged to amend the Equal Pay Act to include an equal value claim. This greatly expanded the scope for women to use the Equal Pay Act, as establishing equal value is considerably easier than demonstrating “equal work”.
Another less obvious, but extremely important benefit of EU membership is the positive impact it has on UK university research. This matters to women everywhere because established EU programmes and networks enable the best minds to work together to tackle some of today’s biggest challenges - from cancer and dementia to HIV and diabetes.
For example, University College London is working with 14 EU partners to develop a ground-breaking test that will determine a woman’s risk of developing breast, cervical, endometrial or ovarian cancer. Projects of this scale and importance are really only possible when top researchers join forces - the discoveries and medical advances are more impactful and more effective than anything we could achieve alone. It is in all our interests that this type of vital collaboration continues unhindered.
Women, just as much as men, are better off in the EU thanks to the jobs our membership creates, the security it delivers, and the action on climate change it pioneers. We know that financial crises and austerity hit women hardest, so the support that the EU gives our economy matters more to us than it does to men. Similarly, cross-border work on tax evasion and financial regulation is crucial for safeguarding all of us from the dangers of an unregulated market.
As a feminist, and as a mother, I want my children and grandchildren to live in a more equal world – and I believe the EU can help us achieve that.
All of us are better off when we work together on the shared challenges we face. Every woman who has taken maternity leave, benefited from anti-discrimination law, or got a job created by doing business on the continent has the EU to thank, at least in part.
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