What Will Brexit Mean for Women?

Women have been conspicuously absent from the debates surrounding the Brexit referendum. But after United Kingdom (UK) citizens voted 52% to 48% to leave the European Union (EU) Friday, many have begun to look forward in an attempt to figure out what comes next—and although Britain’s status as a member of the EU has had an impact on everything from the country’s tourism to its trade benefits, it has also shifted the UK landscape of women’s rights.

The UK’s membership in the EU was a key element shaping policies there that impact women’s lives. The EU, for example, requires from its members nondiscrimination in the workplace and a minimum of 14 weeks paid maternity leave. It has taken its commitment to gender parity seriously, allotting over six billion dollars over the next three years toward achieving it. The EU also puts pressure on all of its members to meet certain requirements of gender justice – a pressure that has historically pushed the UK to raising its own standards. Such was the case in 1982, when the UK’s lack of a strong policy requiring equal pay for equal work caused the European Commission to take it to task.

In spite of fear-mongering appeals to women voters by politicians supporting Brexit, polls released forty-eight hours before the referendum indicated that a greater number of women than men remained undecided, and 5% more men than women intended definitively to vote remain. The difference, however, was so slight that other sources reported no gender gap whatsoever, while still others found a 10% disparity in the other direction. Without exit polls, it is impossible to know just how the final breakdown came out.

Now, the referendum results have roused concerns about where the UK will stand on these issues, and whether the vote to leave the EU will have an adverse impact on women. The UK will no longer have access to that EU funding for political gender parity, and in the midst of shifting their policies in the aftermath of Brexit, it’s impossible to predict where progressive policies on women’s rights will fall. These questions won’t just impact women within the UK, either—the women and children who make up 60% of migrants are undoubtedly waiting anxiously to see how British immigration policies change moving forward in the wake of the racist and xenophobic campaign that was waged in support of UK’s departure from the EU.

Friday’s revelation of David Cameron’s intended resignation makes it tough to know just who will be at the helm of future policy-making on women’s rights issues, and it adds a layer to the uncertainty about what Brexit will mean for women. What is clear, however, is that women in and even outside of the UK had a lot at stake on Friday—and now, many questions remain about how the fallout from the Brexit movement will impact women’s lives.


Emma Watson is an editorial intern at Ms. and a rising senior at Smith College, where she studies English literature and neuroscience and works as a peer writing tutor. She has a zeal for fiction, through which she engages with queer and feminist issues. Emma spends her free time listening to sea ballads and writing peculiar YA fantasy novels.