The Likely Economic Impact of Brexit on Women: Lessons from Gender and Trade Research

Date Posted: Monday 21st January 2019

Women's Budget Group Director, Mary-Ann Stephenson and Economist Marzia Fontana contributed a chapter to the book Gender and Queer Perspectives on Brexit. Read the preview...

BrexitEUFeminist EconomicsGender BudgetingTrade

Brexit will mean new trading arrangements for the UK, not just with the EU but with the rest of the world. It is well established that trade agreements can have significantly different impacts on different groups of women and men, as a result of differences in economic position, caring responsibilities and political power. However, there has been little work to date on the potential gender impacts of the UK’s post Brexit trade deals. With continued uncertainty about what trade agreement the UK will reach with the EU, and therefore what trade agreements with the rest of the world will be possible and/or necessary, it is difficult to predict with certainty what these gendered impacts might be.

Since the early 2000s, a number of analytical frameworks have been developed to assess the gendered impacts of international trade expansion and liberalisation. One commonly used framework links the distributional implications of trade to effects on employment, consumption and public provision of services (Gammage et al. 2002; Fontana 2003). Using this model, this chapter will explore the key issues to consider when analysing the eventual trade agreements made by the UK. Section 2 draws on a few examples from the gender and trade literature to illustrate ways in which trade affects women and men differently with regard to employment, consumption and the provision of public services. Section 3 sets out the possible forms a post Brexit trade deal with the EU might take, while Section 4 summarises existing research on the impact that these are likely to have on UK GDP. Sections 5, 6 and 7 draw on selective evidence on the structure of the UK economy and its gendered features to suggest likely effects of Brexit on women as workers, consumers and users of public services respectively. Section 8 briefly highlights some of the implications of Brexit for victims and survivors of male violence. Section 9 concludes with a series of recommendations to avoid adverse effects on gender equality from new trade agreements in the post-Brexit era.

The trade and inequality literature usually distinguishes three main channels through which changes in the composition and level of exports and imports affect individuals in a country: the employment channel, the consumption channel and the public provision channel (Gammage et al. 2002; Fontana 2003). Different groups of women and men are thus going to be affected by trade policies and agreements not only as workers and producers, but also as consumers and citizens/residents entitled to public services. As for the employment effect, trade policies and agreements are likely to result in changes in the structure of production of a country, with some sectors expanding and other contracting. This, in turn, causes changes in the level and distribution of employment of different categories of workers employed with different intensities by different sectors. It is not only the quantity of employment which can be affected, but also its quality. 

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Written by:
Mary-Ann Stephenson
Director of Women's Budget Group

Marzia Fontana
Economist at Institute of Development Studies at Sussex, Brighton