9 MAY 2016

Why should women vote to Remain in the EU this June? Monica Threlfall argues the case, as part of our campaign to get women’s issues talked about in this debate and encourage women to engage. Catch up on our live video from our recent event exploring both sides here, and read Dreda Say Mitchell’s blog piece arguing to Leave here.

All women should vote Remain – it’s as simple as that. There are no arguments strong enough to make leaving worth it. We should not put at risk the protective laws adopted at EU level, including by the UK, which have become British law by the decision of our governments during forty years of membership. Since Britain joined in 1973, the member-states have adopted measures that benefit women in many guises: as consumers, employees, businesswomen, mothers, parents, students, holiday-makers, and those suffering from disabilities, racism, sexism, homophobia and ageism.

True, we had the 1970 Equal Pay Act already, but its scope was narrow. As part of the European Community, women here saw the sex equality principle being applied to all conditions at work and all social security benefits and pensions. By 1997, the member-states (including the UK) had even endorsed the legal principle that employers had to prove they were not discriminating against a woman if they were paying her less. As to part-time workers, virtually all women at the time, they used to be paid not just for the fewer hours they worked compared to the full-timers, but at a lower rate per hour. Now, part time workers must be paid proportionately the same as full-timers.

For mothers, the EU member-states agreed to new or extended rights for pregnant workers, mothers, fathers, and parents. Once controversial, the needs of parents are now a mainstream issue thanks to the EU process. The EU member-states have also tackled the problem of businesswomen never being invited onto company boards, which has caused British companies to drop most of their opposition to it. Equal opportunities has been a constant concern of the member-states, with substantial funds spent on skills training for women to increased their job opportunities, and on prevention of harassment at work and violence against women. Outside the EU, women living in the UK will be left out.

Now, if an EU member-state doesn’t comply with a protective law they themselves have developed and agreed to, women can take it directly to EU bodies. Well over 200 cases of member-state disregard for sex equality have been brought to the European Court of Justice and its judgments have continued to reinforce sex equality all over Europe. Outside the EU, all this will become unavailable to us.

If the UK were to leave the EU, any British government would be free to water down or abolish such beneficial legislation. The Leave campaigners have already hinted at it. But  inside the EU, governments cannot reduce the laws they have freely agreed to, so we are safe now. As members, we live under a broad, solid roof of rights. Once outside, it will be a free-for-all, and we will have no one to turn to.

As members, we can also count on the European Women’s Lobby, a representative body of women’s organisations that puts forward demands on our behalf directly to the European Commission, and the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee in the European Parliament. It is currently devoted to improving the lot of domestic workers, trafficked women, those with disabilities, and getting more women onto company boards. So in the EU we have high-level tools to wield that make us more powerful. Outside the EU, we lose all that.

Of course, many women feel that even under the European roof of rights, there still isn’t enough gender equality. We are insufficiently protected from all those who infringe laws and don’t bother with good practice – criminals, abusers and traffickers; small and big employers, retail companies, and so on. Indeed the Fawcett Society and others still face a crying need to campaign on myriad issues. But how much worse would it be trying to do this from outside the EU.

Don’t forget to use your vote on 23rd June. Make sure you register by 7th June to make your voice heard.


Monica is a Reader in European Politics at London Metropolitan University. She has researched and published on a range of EU socio-economic issues and on the way the EU itself works to develop the area of social policymaking.