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Brexit has blocked progress on the gender pay gap – only a people’s vote can show women the way to prosperity

With businesses concerned about how and where they will operate, who will staff their firms and where their stock will come from, women’s equality has been once again bumped down the order of priorities

Sophie Walker
Tuesday 02 April 2019 13:57 BST
People's Vote projects 'Put it to the people' onto Parliament

Last year marked the first time companies had to report the difference between male and female earnings in their organisations. The results showed what many women have long known and many men have long ignored: the UK’s gender pay gap is 18.4 per cent, rising to as much as 35.6 per cent in some sectors.

At the current rate of progress, according to the World Economic Forum, it will take us 202 years to reach pay equality. In the words of a thousand feminist protest placards: “I can’t believe I still have to protest this”.

This week marks the second yearly reporting deadline. It is also the week we were originally scheduled to be leaving the European Union. And judging by the initial figures released, Brexit has not only stalled all domestic policymaking and sensible political debate – it’s also stalling progress to close the gender pay gap.

In some companies the gap has actually gotten worse. EasyJet, which last year hired more female pilots to take its overall proportion to a whopping, errr, 5 per cent, following an outcry over the majority of highly paid male aviators that contributed to its 45.5 per cent pay gap, has since increased that gap to 47.9 per cent.

When it finally became law for all companies with more than 250 employees to report on pay, many of us hoped that this insistence on transparency would crack open out-of-date attitudes around UK boardrooms and across workplaces.

But instead of spending the last year analysing and innovating for parity and the talent that would unleash, male business leaders have been occupied with fretting about their futures as the government plays politics with the biggest political decision of a lifetime. With businesses concerned about how and where they will operate, who will staff their firms and where their stock will come from, women’s equality has been once again bumped down the order of priorities.

This is just one of the many ways in which the UK’s exit from the European Union will affect women disproportionately and it’s why I’m supporting a people’s vote. Brexit is a feminist issue.

Our history with the EU matters when it comes to equal pay. The Equal Pay Act of 1970 happened in part with an eye on the UK’s forthcoming bid for European membership. Later the EU took the UK to court in 1983 to make sure the law secured equal pay for work of equal value. This is a crucial shift which has allowed many women to seek compensation for unfair treatment. In 2017 the European Union established a plan to give workers more power to request information on equal pay as well as sanctioning firms. The UK government has done little to push forward this crucial legislation because it is distracted by – and here we are again – Brexit.

A key component of the pay gap is the disproportionate duty of care that women carry, for children and for older or disabled relatives. Again and again women are pushed out of the workplace to do this unpaid work because our society does not value care and successive governments see it as an expense rather than an investment.

Brexit threatens to exacerbate both this problem and also the pay gap: experts predict 400,000 care workers from the EEA/EU will leave the UK by 2026; the economic downturn that analysts have agreed is an inevitable consequence of Brexit will leave the health and social care sector further underfunded; and the Department of Health and Social Care has suggested more women will need to drop out of the workforce to pick up some of the slack.

Meanwhile, the Brexit deal negotiated by the government contains no guarantee that we will stay in step with the EU on women’s rights. This matters because, as Trump’s administration has so effectively shown, progress on human rights is not linear. Those rights must be protected or they can be stripped away.

Think I’m over-dramatising? Of the seven men who voted against the government’s decision to force companies to report their pay gaps, four of them were members of the European Research Group (ERG) which is currently pulling the strings of this puppet Conservative government.

We cannot risk our hard-earned pay and hard-earned equal rights falling into these men’s hands. With a government in crisis and a parliament in gridlock, a people’s vote really is the only way to settle this mess and get on with the long-overdue business of women’s equality.

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