On June 23rd, Britain will vote in a national referendum on whether we want to remain part of the European Union, or leave it. As the debate heats up, themes have emerged – immigrationsovereignty, the economy, which box will lead us quickest to apocalypse/World War Three.

But one theme stands out to me. And that theme is men.

The debate, the campaigns, the voices and the issues have all been overwhelmingly dominated by men.

Who are the key voices, and who is leading the “Leave” and “Remain” campaigns?

Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, David Cameron, George Osborne, Iain Duncan Smith, Jeremy Corbyn, William Hague, Peter Mandelson, Jacob Rees-Mog, Michael Gove, Douglas Carswell, Chris Grayling, George Galloway and just last week, Tony Blair.

(They’re also all white men, in case you’re wondering).

The major funders of the two campaigns are also all men.

The discussion has been dominated by male business leaders. Like the 300+ business leaders who wrote an open letter in the Times in support of Brexit. Of that group, 292 of them were men. Only 14, or less than 5%, were women.

Then there were the FTSE100 leaders who wrote in the Times against Brexit. They were overwhelmingly men too.

This summary piece on the two camps doesn’t name a single woman or company headed by a woman. All the key figures identified are men.

Women public figures do have views on the referendum. Theresa MayPriti Patel, Sarah WollastonKate HoeyStella Creasy, Angela Merkel, Nicola Sturgeon. But where are they? Have they been sidelined, or have they chosen to absent themselves?

Meanwhile, some of the women who have spoken up have been ridiculed.

When actor Emma Thompson shared her thoughts on Brexit, she was told by the Sun newspaper to ‘shut yer cakehole’, and called a ‘pro-EU luvvie’.

And Priti Patel, a Conservative Minister and Leave supporter, was subject to this charming remark from leading union boss Tim Roach.

“Priti Patel, surely a contradiction in her name.”

And if you need statistical proof that women voices have been absent in this debate, a Loughborough University study found that just one in ten voices quoted in the media on Brexit were women. It led one prominent woman MP (and my former boss) to file a formal complaint with the broadcasting watchdog about the gross imbalance.

Photo: Shutterstock / John Gomez
Photo: Shutterstock / John Gomez

And what about the issues? Why an almost obsessive discussion about immigration and the economy?

The first time women were mentioned in the context of immigration was Nigel Farage’s claim that remaining in the EU would lead to the sexual assault of British women. He appears to be unaware of the 473,000 sexual assaults that already happen every year in the UK, very few of which are committed by illegal immigrants

Yet Britain’s membership of the European Union has been responsible for many of women’s legal gains on the path to equality. For example, equal pay for work of equal value, part-time work recognition, maternity/paternity leave and pregnancy protection.

The European Court on Human Rights has expanded Britain’s human rights case law, especially for marginalised groups like refugee women, children and black and ethnic minority (BAME) women.

From the issues given widespread attention, you’d never know women existed, let alone that there was a strong gender angle to the Brexit debate.

So why is this?

Given that business and the economy have dominated the political debate, and these two fields are disproportionately male, perhaps its inevitable. Politics itself is disproportionately male. It could also be the male-dominated editorial media, who decide which issue matters.

Photo: Shutterstock / MediaPictures.pl
Photo: Shutterstock / MediaPictures.pl

And perhaps it’s self-reinforcing. Polling shows women are twice as likely to be undecided on Brexit as men, but women also strongly feel neither campaign has addressed issues that matter to them.

“Or as Alison Cawley, 54, a former headhunter from Taunton, puts it: “I am tired of debates between man one and man two, both trotting out predigested ‘lines to take’ and sounding about as authentically engaged as a speak-your-weight machine… Given that politics and business are still dominated by white middle-aged men, it’s not surprising that theirs are the dominant voices here.”

“Angela Eagle put it even more bluntly: “Women’s voices have been drowned out by the unmistakably masculine and noisy playground spat that is taking place between Tory blokes.”


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Lauren Dobson-Hughes
Lauren Dobson-Hughes is a consultant specializing in gender, health and rights. She was previously executive director of an international development NGO, and past president of Planned Parenthood. Lauren worked for the late NDP Leader Jack Layton.

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