As the 2017 international women’s mobilization global theme calls on us to "be bold for change", here Professor Colette Fagan, Dr. Nina Teasdale and Dr. Helen Norman, of the University of Manchester, take stock of the UK’s gender-related policy measures

Taking stock of gender inequalities
in the UK in the face of Brexit

9 min read
Foto: Flickr/ Tax Credits
  • Progress towards gender equality has been uneven and often too slow.
  • Since 1957, equality between women and men has been a founding value of the EU and adherence to this principle is a membership condition.
  • The gender aspect of the European Employment Strategy introduced targets to promote gender equality in the labour market, which member states were held accountable against.
  • The World Economic Forum predicts that the gender gap won’t close entirely until 2186[1].
  • It is essential that the existing EU provisions are written into UK law, and built upon.
  • Gender budgeting and gender impact analysis should become a routine tool for policy design as the government navigates the economic challenges.

According to Hilary Clintonin one of her first Presidential candidacy speeches in April 2015, ‘there has never been a better time in history to be born female’; and without doubt progress has been made. Women are better represented in political officeglobal figures rising from 11.3% in 1995 to 22.7% in 2015. Record numbers of women are in employment, and they hold a growing proportion of the senior professional and managerial positions, including on corporate boards. Global female participation in tertiary educationhas improved and has overtaken male participation rates in almost all developed countries and in half of developing countries. And there has been a global commitment to tackle violence against women and girls as part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals(2015).

But progress towards gender equality has been uneven and often too slow. Looking forward in the UK we now face the uncertainties of Brexit while still grappling with the effects of the economic austerity measures introduced since the 2008 recession.

A step closer to parity?

European Union (EU) membership, as well as initiatives from supra- national bodies including the United Nations, added weight to the efforts of feminists, union members and others who have campaigned to secure progress towards gender equality in the UK. Since 1957, equality between women and men has been a founding value of the EU and adherence to this principle is a membership condition that the UK government signed up to when it joined in 1973.

Gender equality legislation in the UK was introduced with the Equal Pay Act (1970), the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) and statutory maternity leave (1975). Further legal reforms, triggered by EU Directives, followed (e.g. Part-time WorkersRegulations 2000 and Unpaid Parental Leave), supplemented with ‘soft law’ recommendations, and the gender mainstreaming aspect of the European Employment Strategy(1997) introduced targets to promote gender equality in the labour market. National governments’ progress against the strategy was subject to scrutiny via annual reports, and the country specific recommendations for policy priorities included gender equality measures.

Steered by the EU’s employment strategy, between 1997-2010, significant policy reform was made by the UK’s Labour government which initiated fundamental change and modernisation, providing ‘new opportunity and new structural spaces’ to pursue gender equality. Focusing primarily on increasing women’s employment, this included the introduction of targets for pre-school childcare provision (the 2002 Barcelona Objectives), and the 1998 National Childcare Strategydelivered significant expansion. While most of the free pre-school provision has been part-time and term-time (for 3 to 4 year olds and eligible two year olds) it has grown from an entitlement to 12 hours per week in the late 1990s to 15 hours in 2010, with plans to increase to 30 hours from September 2017.

Childcare expansion was complemented by a suite of other reforms: improvements to statutory maternity and paternity leave; the ‘right to request’ reduced or flexible working hours (initially for parents and then extended); and parental leave was introduced and reformed – most recently, with the launch of Shared Parental Leave (2015). There were also targeted measures to help women in low-income households, including the New Deal for Lone Parents, and the introduction of Working Tax Credits and the National Minimum Wage (1998) – women accounting for two thirds of the recipients of the latter. This group of women, however, has been hit hard by the welfare cuts triggered by the government’s austerity measures, and most exposed to increased job insecurity and deteriorating working conditions (Budget Gender Audit).

In contrast, and in the context of widening economic inequalities in the UK, women’s representation in managerial positions has improved, including at board level. The latter was accelerated by the Davies Review (2011) which set a voluntary target for gender equality in FTSE 100 boardrooms and against the backdrop of the European Parliament debating whether to introduce a gender quota for corporate boards (Fagan et al. 2012). The UK voluntary target of having 25 per cent women on FTSE 100 boards by December 2015was exceeded – more than doubling the number in 2011 when the target was set.

Falling back?

After a protracted period of austerity following the 2008 financial crisis, and now Brexit, there is a very real risk that the long-established UK gender rights and gender equality machinery will be weakened or stripped away. According to the World Economic Forum (2016) the UK has slipped from the ninth most gender-equal country in 2006 to 20th place.

Indicators of the magnitude of gender inequalities in the UK include:

  • Senior decision making positions remain male-dominated. In 2016, only 29 % of MPs and 26.8% of FTSE 100 board members were women (concentrated in non-executive rather than executive director roles).
  • The UK has a persistent problem of skill shortages in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), recognised most recently in the government’s proposed new Industrial Strategy. Yet girls and young women remain under-represented in the relevant education and training pathways, compounded by a leaky pipeline whereby employers fail to recruit and retain women with STEM qualifications.
  • The gendered pay gap persists and becomes wider after motherhood. Recent estimations show that at the current rate of progress equal pay will only be achieved 99 years after the 1970 Equal Pay Actwas enacted; even though the current government vowed to close the gap within a generation.
  • Following the Equality Act (2010), mandatory gender pay gap reportingis to be finally introduced from April 2017 for larger employers - although they have until 2018 to publish this data, and there is no obligation on companies to explain any gender pay gap they find or to say how they propose to address it.
  • While Shared Parental Leave is a step in the right direction to support fathers’ involvement in childcare, it is low paid and reliant on the mother giving up a portion of her maternity leave, so only a minority of fathers have taken it up (what makes dads involved in childcare). Men are also not pursing flexible working; there continues to be a penalty for working part-time and pregnancy discriminationremains prevalent.
  • The government plan to increase free pre-school childcare to 30 hours from September 2017 is unlikely to roll-out smoothly because only one third of local authorities in England expect there to be enough childcare places. Families that are unable to secure a free pre-school place or need to purchase additional childcare contend with childcare costs which are much higher than in most other European countries.
  • More of women’s employment than men’s is concentrated in the public sector, in education, health and other social care and social service roles – exposing women to the pressures and deteriorating employment conditions stemming from public expenditure cuts.
  • With both the NHS and social care in crisis, the government is pushing families to take responsibility for the care of elderly parents and relatives. However, it is women who will feel the brunt given they assume most responsibility for unpaid care.
  • Violence against women and girls remains prevalent, with an average of two women a week killed by a violent partner or ex-partner in England and Wales.

So where does this leave us?

The World Economic Forum predicts that the gender gap won’t close entirely until 2186. There is risk of:

  • Complacency and lost momentum – the ‘policies are in place, action is being taken, so what’s the problem’ type of complacency.
  • Measures continuing to treat women as the problem rather than tackling the tacit bias that restricts women’s progress; moreover, both women and men need to be involved in the process.
  • The economic crisis continuing to thwart political vision and limit concrete measures to support women’s rights, representation and resources.
  • Brexit leading to a weakening or erosion of the UK’s equality and human rights protection and infrastructure.

When the international community took stock of the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, a post-2015 framework – the sustainable development goals– was adopted, with women’s rights and equality between women and men a standalone goal. The UK strongly advocating for this goal. According to Maycock, (2015) this provides ‘a renewed opportunity for global, European and national feminist action’.  But a recent report by the UK’s cross-party Women’s and Equalities Committee (2017) has found that unlike 22 other countries, including Germany, Norway and Finland, the UK Government is lagging behind and has yet to set out a clear strategic plan for how this international obligation will be met.

On 23 June 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. While it is too early to determine the gendered effects of Brexit, adherence to two principles are required to prevent backsliding or weakening of equality protection.

First, it is essential that the existing EU provisions are written into UK law, and built upon. According to the UK’s Women’s Budget Group, ‘it is vitally important that the rights women have under EU law are guaranteed as we leave the EU. This requires both legal protection and a commitment by Government to take action on Equality’.  In January 2017, a major nine-month review into the UK’s gender discrimination laws was launched by the Fawcett Society.  The Review considers the effectiveness of current gender inequality law, including access to justice. It also aims to identify gaps in protections for women and recommend how those gaps could be addressed.

Both the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Women and Equalities Select Committee (28 Feb 2017) have published a series of priorities and recommendations to protect equality as the UK leaves the European Union. In summary these reports call on the UK Government to:

  • bring forward an amendment to the Equality Act 2010 to empower Parliament and the courts to declare whether legislation is compatible with UK principles of equality.
  • Include a clause in the Great Repeal Bill that explicitly commits to maintaining the current levels of equality protection when EU law is transposed into UK law. At the moment, the Great Repeal Bill has the potential for some protections to be eliminated at a later date.
  • Develop a cross-government equality strategy in order to ensure engagement across government departments and provide a platform for linking with and drawing on the expertise of civil society organisations.
  • Assess the extent of research and other equality initiatives that currently receive EU funds and replace and ring-fence these funds to allow current equalities research to continue undisrupted.
  • Ensure the UK is a global leader on equality and human rights.
  • Promote the UK as an open and fair place to live and do business.

Second, alongside ensuring existing EU provisions are written into UK law, it is also essential that gender budgetingand gender impact analysisshould become a routine tool for policy design as the government navigates the economic challenges which are widely predicted. Otherwise women will suffer following Brexit and continue to bear the brunt of the economic costs, as they have done under the austerity measures. Being bold for change thus couldn’t be more apt or more urgent.


[1] Through the Global Gender Gap Report, the World Economic Forum quantifies the magnitude of gender disparities and tracks their progress over time, with a specific focus on the relative gaps between women and men across four key areas: health, education, economy and politics. The 2016 Report covers 144 countries.