Britain, Equality and the EU; A ‘Progress’ Report

Published on July 11, 2023

Equality between women and men is an integral value of the European Union that is enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, just as it is in the UK, under the Equalities Act. But, legislation and practicality are of course often two very different things, the glaring continued existence of the gender pay gap around the world being a prime example. 

It is almost an automatic expectation that in Western society, the ideological home of democratic and egalitarian values, that the general direction is, albeit slowly, moving towards gender equality. Yet with a British woman recently being sentenced to 28 months in jail for purchasing abortion pills over the outdated UK legal limit, Code First Girls’ study highlighting the fact that the majority of women drop out of tech roles pre-35, the Fabian Society’s Gendered Impact of the Pandemic pamphlet data demonstrating an undeniable gap that still has not been closed and shows no sign of being so, plus the Un_Biased Report substantiating this on an economic front, one would be forgiven for asking why on earth so little has changed, and whether we would be doing better had we remained within the legislative walls of the European Union.

Equality in the EU

The last few years have admittedly been disastrous for gender equality on many fronts. The devastation from the pandemic wreaked havoc on efforts to redress inequality and exacerbated existing issues. Churchill once said “Never let a good crisis go to waste” and many leaders took a leaf out of his book, exploiting the chaos of Covid-19 to consolidate power and divert funding from initiatives that supported women.

Not only this, but there have been several government-led pendulum swings in the other direction when it comes to equality in certain countries. The Polish government for example has repeatedly threatened to follow EU membership applicant Turkey by withdrawing the country from the International Convention of Istanbul, a major human rights treaty establishing comprehensive legal standards to ensure the elimination of violence against women. Not only this, but the illegitimate Polish Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling has introduced a de facto ban on abortion

Meanwhile, Hungary has unfortunately paralleled its former border neighbour in its regression. After a decade of democratic backsliding and corruption, Prime Minister Viktor Orban was warned that his government had activated the conditionality mechanism, which allows the EU to stop funding to a member state if it violates principles regarding the rule of law. In 2020, Orban’s government blocked ratification of a regional treaty on violence against women, and in October 2022, it was placed under the full monitoring procedure by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Recently, the United Nations High Commissioner has drawn attention to discriminatory statements made by governmental institutions, and lack of access to medical abortion, as well as a myriad of other issues.

A Global Decline

Casting an eye outside the bloc, the picture in many places is arguably worse. With the takeover of the Taliban in Afghanistan during 2021, there has been a shocking symbolic and literal obliteration of Afghan women’s rights in all forms, with murals of women outside the Ministry of Women’s Affairs having their faces obscured, and the entire department being replaced with the Ministry for Vice and Virtue, a police force that was previously notorious for beating women who went out unaccompanied or without a full burqa. Boys were told to return to school but girls dismissed, and women are now in effect banned from working, sports, and from participating in most aspects of public life. Without access to education nor employment, the current and future generation of Afghan women are being stripped of their economic independence, as the Taliban force an unwelcome return to the patriarchal structure of men as the sole family breadwinners and governors.

In Ukraine, Hrystyna Kit, co-founder of JurFem, the Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association has condemned the consistent weaponised use of rape, sexual torture and forced nudity by the Russians, which has been documented extensively by human rights organisations and journalists. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime continues to systematically discriminate against women, from disproportionately favoring men in the judicial system, to gender segregation, to encouraging the physical punishment of women for ‘crimes’ such as failing to cover their hair. This culminated in the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, which sparked protests that are still going on now. In response, despite international outcry, the Iranian regime has executed protestors and increased monitoring and the forced closure of businesses which they see as flouting the mandatory headscarf law. 

Once looked up to as a comparatively liberal superpower, the situation in the USA is no better. It has become the new geopolitical battleground for reproductive rights, following the overturning of the “Roe v. Wade” bill in 2022 which repealed the constitutional right which guaranteed citizens access to abortion. Reproductive healthcare is now banned in 14 states, many with no exceptions for rape or incest. As the war plays out across individual courts, 20 states have added new protections and others are introducing gestational limits, for example in Nebraska, where Republican Governor Jim Pillen signed a 12 week ban in May, after weeks of debate in the unicameral legislature and a failed attempt to pass a 6 week ban.

Where Do Women Thrive Most?

Two questions remain then; with our performance grinding to a halt on many levels, are our European counterparts performing better as a whole, and how does their status compare to other regions of the world?

Generally speaking, progress is being made on equality in the European Union, it’s just moving at a glacial pace. Data from the European Institute for Gender Equality’s Index of 2022 showed that the EU member state average score out of 100 was 68.6 points, only 5.5 higher than in 2010 and a mere 0.6 increase from the previous year.

Looking at the EU compared to its external counterparts, although progress is painfully slow, it is still better. Research from the Robert Schuman Foundation shows that although on average women earn 10.3% less than men in the European Union, in the OECD as a whole, the average is 12%. Though this is still far from parity, it is higher than in all other regions of the world. For example in Japan it is 22.1%, in China 13.1% and in the United States it is 23.9%. Political representation is also stronger, with Brazil, Japan, India, Russia and notably China (with zero women in the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau) well below the EU average. Female participation in parliaments, boards and other political bodies is also higher in Europe than elsewhere, with 37.77% of the members of the European Parliament being women.

In leaving the EU, we had the legislative rug pulled out from under us. Powers were repatriated to Westminster, which has led to the disintegration of the EU safety net. Much of EU law strengthened women’s standing in different areas and created clear recourse for action where discrimination persisted. For example, the Pregnant Worker’s Directive supported women by prohibiting pregnancy-based discrimination, the Work-Life Balance Directive improved access to flexible work arrangements, the Agency Workers Directive ensured minimum pay, and the Parental Leave Directive ensured exactly that, as well as setting other minimum standards. Now, the EU Withdrawal Act allows Ministers to amend, repeal or modify EU legislation converted into domestic law, bypassing parliamentary scrutiny. This serves as a disturbing dilution of previous legal antidotes to discrimination. National courts can of course no longer refer matters to the European Courts of Justice, and women’s interests groups have also rapidly lost access to the policymaking sphere. 

In short, we gave up a whole host of powerful protections for women’s rights that took years to gain. Now, 3 years on from Brexit and with the pandemic having further decimated hard won progress, it is hardly surprising that Britain is stagnating. 

In her paper ‘Gender Equality in Europe; a still imperfect model in the world’, Research Fellow Stephanie Buzmaniuk concluded that “The European Union remains the region of the world where women live best”. It is clear that the EU has a comparative advantage over the rest of the world that we used to, and could have continued benefiting from.  

Looking inwards, it has become clear that we as Brits would be far better off in the European Union when it comes to levelling the playing field. As Joyce Quin, Vice President of European Movement recently said,Politicians must openly stand up and acknowledge the negative impact that Brexit is having on Britain.” Not only politicians, but citizens too. To do so requires both creating and maintaining a conversation around what we are missing and how we get it back. Despite having a solid set of values, the EU certainly isn’t perfect-it hasn’t even ratified the Istanbul Convention yet. But it’s undeniably better to have a seat at the table of those who have it on the agenda than not.

Cecilia Jastrzembska is Head of Events and National Coordination for Young European Movement. She works as a Director in central UK Government and is also Career Development Officer for the National Executive Committee for thinktank the Fabian Society and a Board Trustee for charity Volunteer Centre Sutton. She writes extensively on international affairs, women’s rights, artificial intelligence and the environment for political publications and is an award winning public speaker.

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