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Recent reports have highlighted the likely negative impact of Brexit for gender equality in the UK. The Fawcett Society and Women’s Budget Group found that women will be hit hardest by the economic impact of Brexit. Women’s rights in the workplace will also be put at risk by Brexit once protections guaranteed by European legislation are removed.

This is particularly problematic in light of evidence that women did not have a prominent place in the referendum campaign. A Loughborough University study found that just 15% of individuals who appeared in campaign press coverage were women.

As part of a larger research project on media negativity, I explored whether women’s marginalisation was specific to the referendum, or whether it was a longer-running trend in EU debates.

I explored women’s participation in news coverage of the 2014 European Parliament (EP) election. The UK’s membership of the EU was a key issue during the election – it followed David Cameron’s 2013 promise to call an in/out referendum if the Conservative Party won the next general election.

In order to get a broad sample of press coverage, I collected articles over a three-week period from online versions of The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, three of the most widely read online newspapers in the UK. I analysed women’s participation in the debates at three levels: as journalists writing news about the European elections, as speakers – political actors or expert sources – quoted in the news, and as commenters in discussion threads underneath articles.

Women’s participation in public debates relates to their descriptive and substantive representation in politics. We can differentiate here between their overall numerical presence in the debate (descriptive representation) and women’s opportunities to express their diverse experiences and perspectives in relation to different levels of government (substantive representation).

In the analysis, I distinguished between three dimensions of debates. Firstly, debates may involve policy: the shape of particular policies or regulations, such as EU monetary policy or national immigration policies.

Secondly, debates may revolve around politics: matters of party competition, the personal qualities of candidates, or questions about who wins or who loses an election.

Thirdly – and this is particularly relevant to European elections – debates can relate to polity. Here questions about political systems or institutions are relevant – in this case, it may refer to expanding or limiting the EU competences, its democratic legitimacy, or a country’s membership of the EU overall. EU polity contestation thus refers to those broader debates about European integration.

I found that, while women were marginalised in EP election news across the board, they are marginalised to a greater extent in debates about the EU polity specifically.

Generally, female journalists are under-represented when writing political news – research has found around a third of political news articles in Europe are written by women. I find, however, that during the European election women wrote twice as many articles about EU or national politics than about the EU polity.

Just over a quarter of articles about EU politics – that is, issues related to parties in the European Parliament, for example, or the appointment of the European Commission President – were written by female journalists in collaboration with male colleagues (and an additional 9% were authored by women alone) (see Figure 1).

Women writing alone also authored a quarter of articles about national politics. However, female journalists writing alone authored a mere 12% of articles about the EU polity, demonstrating that women had very little stake in shaping the news about European integration or the UK’s EU membership.

Figure 1

This pattern is broadly replicated amongst politicians and expert speakers quoted in the news. More than twice as many women are quoted speaking about EU politics than EU polity (20% compared with 7% – see Figure 2), and more also speak about national politics, though the figure here is also low (12%).

Women are therefore far less likely to participate in debates about European integration or the UK’s EU membership than they are to be quoted speaking about partisan issues in the European or British parliaments.

Figure 2:

If we look closely at the women who are quoted speaking about the EU polity, the 7% amounts to eleven quotes by women. Of those, nine were foreign women, seven were from radical right parties (of whom five were Marine Le Pen), and only two were British politicians – Conservative MP Margot James and Margaret Thatcher.

Female politicians and experts in the UK were therefore almost entirely excluded from debating European integration during the 2014 EP election. Those women whose voices were heard tended to be far-right, eurosceptic, and/or foreign.

Finally, of those users commenting ‘below the line’ who identified with a gender through their username, I also find that women were more likely to discuss articles about national (20%) and EU politics (25%) than the EU polity (13%) (see Figure 3). This suggests that online discussions about European integration are less inclusive than discussions about party politics. Generally speaking, women do not participate openly in discussions about European integration in this kind of public forum.

Figure 3:

Overall, these findings demonstrate that women were hardly represented in debates about European integration or the UK’s EU membership during the 2014 EP election. When it comes to both the descriptive and substantive representation of women in EU affairs, the European integration debate fails.

At a moment when the UK’s membership of the EU was highly politicized, women in the UK were excluded from the process of debating the UK’s future in Europe.

Why is there a gender gap when talking about the EU polity? It is partly a reflection of the male-dominated nature of the formal political sphere, especially in relation to EU affairs: in 2014 there were no female leaders of the major political parties, no female parliamentary spokespersons for EU affairs, no female chairs of EU-related select committees, nor did we have a female foreign secretary or Europe minister.

Despite now having a female Prime Minister and more female MPs in Parliament, not much has changed – the Brexit process has primarily been overseen by men. Few female politicians therefore have responsibility over our relationship with the EU.

But there is also a lack of inclusiveness in the wider public sphere and civil society that marginalises women from debates about the EU. Women, for example, are more likely to face hostility when speaking about EU membership – Gina Miller has openly discussed the racist and misogynistic abuse she has received since challenging the government on the trigger of Article 50.

In a forthcoming article, Roberta Guerrina, Simona Guerra and Theofanis Exadaktylos find that the referendum campaign failed to activate women: the campaigns did not address gender equality or social policies and women reported feeling less confident about their knowledge of EU affairs.

European integration has proved to be a masculine domain from which women are sidelined at all levels, despite the fact that Brexit will have very real implications for women.

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, women’s exclusion from the debate about the UK’s future in Europe demonstrates that women have limited opportunities to participate as active citizens. Going forward, we need to build a more open and inclusive public debate about the big issues facing the country.

By Dr Charlotte Galpin, Lecturer in German and European Politics, University of Birmingham. Charlotte spoke at our Brexit and Gender conference. You can watch the full discussion here.


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