The long-awaited and heavily-debated EU referendum is now only three weeks away (don’t forget to register to vote by the 7th June!). The coverage has been so relentless yet so frustrating it’s like having the latest Bieber song stuck in your head: you want to keep listening to it, but your gut is telling you it’s wrong. Both the Remain and Leave campaigns have been throwing out statistics left right and center, with topics including employment, government spending, immigration and even the number of bananas sold in a bunch. In such an important vote, it’s become difficult to ascertain how much is scaremongering, and how much is genuine fact – but underneath all the chaos rises another question: where are all the women?
A recent study by Loughborough University looked at press and TV reporting over weekdays between 6th-18th May, and found that women accounted for only one in 10 contributors to the debate in the national press, and one in six on screen. Whilst both the campaigns have set up their own groups to appeal to women – ‘Women for Britain’ for the out camp and ‘Women for IN’ for remain – they both seem to lack any sense of appeal, interest, or point. At the launch of ‘Women for Britain’, Conservative MP Priti Patel likened the Leave campaign to the suffragettes, claiming that fighting to leave the EU was the ‘same cause’ to protect ‘our democratic freedom’. This statement was met poorly by Helen Pankhurst, great-grandaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, who responded by saying the comparison was “unacceptable” and that “I believe that my great grandmother would have been the first to champion what the EU has meant for women – including equal pay and anti discrimination laws”.
Still, the sentiment of a women-focused political movement is promising, but what could have been an informative and relevant extension of the main campaigns turned out to be… not much. What I would expect from the sub-campaigns was a good selection of facts, a hard-hitting focus, and information that leaves me engaged. What I got from the Leave camp was a six point information section that appears to have been designed in a year 6 IT lesson:
Which, to give its merit, at least had information on the referendum. In an open letter to launch ‘Women for IN’, the group claimed “We’re setting up a Women for IN network to spread the word about the benefits of our membership of the EU and to make it clear we cannot take risks with the future of our country”. Yet what you get online is just over a paragraph to tell women how important they are and a chance to sign your name.
According to research by the Fawsett Society, both the Remain and Leave campaigns have “failed to resonate with female voters”, with more than twice as many women as men being undecided about whether the campaigns have addressed their issues. With one million more women in the UK than men, it’s difficult to comprehend why these campaigns have made such a poor effort to engage their voters.
One female voice who has been prominent in the referendum is Harriet Harman, who recently wrote to Ofcom to complain of male politicians being allowed to dominate the EU referendum debate, asserting that “this referendum is too important to be left to men”. Harman has advocated that EU membership meant a “floor that is guaranteed” on equal pay and maternity leave, and in an interview with Women’s Hour argued that there is a “phoney perception” that rights for part time workers and issues on maternity leave would remain in place without the EU. She argues, “If I thought all men in politics on all sides agreed with these rights then I would say: Yeah, we don’t need those European guarantees anymore. But actually so often with women it’s been two steps forward, one step back”.
Regardless of whether her opinions are accurate or not, it is at least positive to have a strong female voice as part of the discussion. And it is true that the EU has been positive in claiming workers and maternity rights – whilst the UK got the Equal Pay Act in 1973, which meant women could demand the same wage as a man in a like-for-like job, it was only in 1984 that the government was forced the include the EU’s 1976 equal pay for equal work directive. Another example is the EU’s 1992 Pregnant Workers Directive, which guaranteed all women at least 14 weeks paid maternity leave, the right to return to the same job, and protections from being fired for being pregnant.
Labour MP Gisele Stuart, who chairs the Vote Leave campaign, argues that there are no guarantees that European Parliament wouldn’t retreat on women’s rights in future, whilst many have argued that in certain cases the UK government has gone further than rules set by the EU, a common example being the 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave in the UK which is far longer than the 14 weeks guaranteed by EU law.
And so, the voters are there, the issues are there, and what could have been the vehicles of mobilizing interest were almost there. Yet not only has there been an absence of women and information on specifically women-related issues, but furthermore a tendency to forget that all issues are relevant to women. Whilst issues such as maternity and equal work rights are undeniably important, we do not need to talk only of children to engage women – women should be being engaged on every issue of employment, of the economy, of how many bananas are sold on a bunch. These issues are of just as much relevance to the million more women – whose votes could swing the referendum – that they are to men, and by propagating male-dominated coverage and creating limited and amateur looking ‘women targeted’ campaigns, that detracts from this. As the campaign draws to a close, it’s unlikely we are going to see a shift in press coverage, but I would encourage all women to try and shut out the shouting match between the campaigns, research what matters to you, and vote on the 23rd June.
by Lizzie Scourfield