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Will A No-Deal Brexit Actually Be Worse For Women?

Sorry to be all Handmaid’s Tale about it but yes, quite possibly

Now two years on from Britain’s fateful referendum on whether or not we should remain part of the European Union, we seem to be stuck in a permanent political state of ‘one step forward, two steps backwards’.

The same debates are had over and over and over again. The same questions are asked on repeat and the same answers – which, broadly, can be summarised as “we still don’t really know but Brexit means Brexit” - are given. Politicians look increasingly stressed and David Cameron, meanwhile, is still chilling out at Wilderness Festival. It’s a big game of Deal or No Deal, which would only be marginally more interesting if it was actually presented by Noel Edmonds.

In amongst all this back and forth on trade deals or, rather, a lack thereof, there is an emerging question that perhaps isn’t getting as much attention as it should be:

Could Brexit be worse for women – especially if we really do end up with no deal?

Without being all Handmaid’s Tale about it, the answer, in short, is yes. But, for some reason, nobody really seems to be talking about it. Apart from the Fawcett Society, that is. They have consistently warned that women’s rights could be affected when EU law no longer applies in Britain and worked alongside the Women’s Budget Group to explore the economic impact of Brexit on women.

This week, The Telegraph published an exclusive story, which largely flew under the radar despite being picked up by a few (mainly women) journalists on Twitter. The headline read:

Women will have to give up work to look after parents unless EU care workers are given priority after Brexit

In a 37-page dossier of analysis, the Department of Health has said that 'in a worst case scenario' – aka no deal or one in which EU migrants are prevented from entering Britain, the NHS could see a shortfall of 6,000 doctors, 12,000 nurses and 28000 care staff within the first five years.

Discussions about the EEA (European Economic Area) workforce, immigration, borders and free movement often feel lofty, complex and far removed from our everyday lives but this is case in point of how they affect us.

The report, seen by the Telegraph, explicitly says that there will be a ‘wider risk to labour market participation’ for a growing number of people in Britain ‘especially women’ because they will have to plug the gap, taking on ‘informal care’ roles for their loved ones.

Social care is one of the biggest challenges facing our country (alongside a shortage of affordable housing). The report notes that not only are more people are living longer, more people are living longer with ‘one or more long-term conditions’ which has placed a ‘significant demand’ on a health and social care workforce.

Now, let’s be clear – nobody is suggesting that once Brexit happens Britain will actually turn into Gilead. There will be no decree from a secretive council which states that all women must give up their jobs with immediate effect and start cooking, cleaning and perhaps even bathing their elderly parents on a daily basis.

The reality is far more mundane and, arguably, actually more worrying. Dystopian dictators are, at least, easy to blame when bad stuff happens but the insidious and sexist forces that could cause women to take on even more unpaid care work than they currently do post-Brexit are already at play in our country. In fact, given that people who voted Leave were also more likely to think feminism is a negative force, you might argue it was part of the whole ‘let’s take back control’ nostalgia drive that helped bring Brexit about.

Speaking to Grazia, Sophie Walker, the Leader of the Women’s Equality Party said that ‘the crisis of care worker shortages is nothing new’. As she sees it, ‘it reflects the fact that we still view physical infrastructure (men’s jobs) as investment, while social infrastructure - such as childcare, education and social care - is seen as an expense to be cut’.

She’s right. According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), women already carry out an overall average of 60% more unpaid care work than men in this country. This includes childcare and adult care as well as ‘house work’ like laundry and cleaning.

All of this is what, for a long time, has been loosely termed ‘women’s work’ and reinforced by traditional ideas about gender roles. Speaking to Grazia, the Fawcett Society’s Chief Executive Sam Smethers explained that it is now clear that Brexit, if not handled properly, ‘could potentially lead to a watering down of women’s rights, particularly if there is an economic downturn’. We already know that this has been the case with austerity. As this report from the Women’s Budget Group makes clear, austerity has affected women more than men, reducing our disposable income. Why? Because when our national social care provisions are scaled back it’s women – mums and daughters - who pick up the slack, often by cutting their working hours so that they can be more available.

This, Smethers says, is because ‘women face greater pressure to step in to care for relatives to meet the gap in the supply of paid care workforce’. If we don’t address this, she adds, ‘we risk turning the clock back on women in the workplace while at once expecting women to work longer to fund their own retirement and also care more. This is unsustainable’.

We know that older people (the over 65s) were more than twice as likely to vote to leave the EU than younger generations (the under 25s). In fact, as I write this, my beloved Leave-voting granddad is very unwell in his South Croydon house. He is being cared for by my also ailing Nan, my mum (who is taking time out of work) and a rota of mostly EU-migrant care workers that, fortunately, he can afford. If he couldn’t, or they weren’t available, I have absolutely no doubt that the women in my family would be picking up the slack as they are in families all over this country.

Grazia asked a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care if they were doing anything to make sure there are enough social care resources to look after our country’s ageing population after Brexit. They said ‘we recognise the invaluable contribution of social care workers and we are confident of reaching a deal with the EU which benefits our health and care workforce’.

As the debate about free movement continues, the spokesperson pointed out that while there is no question that ‘it will end’ their report sets out an ‘ambition to introduce a system which mutually recognises qualifications across borders to ensure dedicated EU staff can continue to work in the UK uninterrupted’.

Ambition. That’s a good word. What was our ambition when we voted to leave the EU? Was it to return to the glory days of Blighty? Or was it to ‘take back control’? Either way, it certainly wasn’t about what would best serve women’s ambition, going forward with disposable income in their back pockets. The idea that women will plug care gaps – whether it’s in childcare or adult social care – is nothing new, in fact it has historically been relied on by governments of all political persuasions in order to do one thing: save money. There’s a reason why we don’t have universal free childcare in Britain.

The question is whether women’s work is going to be expected in order to make a success of leaving the EU? One step forward for Brexit, three steps back for women’s equality