Where are the Women at the Big Boys’ Table?

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 15.49.17After a year of political flux and upheaval, the Brexit negotiations officially began on Monday 19 June. The underrepresentation of women at the highest political level is one thing which appears to have remained constant. Columba Achilleos-Sarll, a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick, points out that only one and two women make up the UK and EU negotiating teams respectively. She assesses the impact that this could have on the process, and what it means more broadly.  

Brexit negotiations have kicked off but one thing is amiss – there is only one woman sitting at the negotiating table for the UK team and only two at the negotiating table for the EU team. This seemingly banal observation, however, is curious, and prompts a question once posed by feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe: “Where are the women?”

This lack of representation is a stark reminder that women remain marginalised, excluded and silenced within British (and European) politics – and, furthermore, that some women remain more marginalised than others. These are not novel observations, and it is not new for feminists to bemoan female underrepresentation. Nonetheless, the fact that the UK has entered into Brexit negotiations in 2017 with one female sitting at the negotiating table reminds us that gender, racial and class inequality in the top echelons of policymaking remains alive and kicking. This sends out a wider message: that feminist ideas and issues regarding gender and racial equality will not feature as prominent issue areas in these negotiations – nor will the negotiations seek to mainstream gender, or adopt a gender-sensitive approach. Such a lacuna is further evidence that gender-sensitive approaches are easily sidelined as a result of the widely held belief that “issues regarding women, gender and human rights are ‘soft’ or marginal issues” (Mazurana 2005) that can be postponed while the ‘hard’ issues of a ‘hard’ Brexit are dealt with.

From Caroline Webb, the Director of Market Access and Budget in the Brexit Department – the sole women on the UK’s negotiating team – to the migrant who will be affected by the results of these negotiations – every women has an important story to tell about Brexit (even if they don’t quite know what that story is just yet). Thus, Enloe posits: “When asking – Where are the women? – And following up with how did they get there? Who benefits from their being there? And what do they themselves feel about being there? – One should be prepared for complex answers”. There is value in telling a different story about the Brexit negotiations. Presently, however, it looks increasingly likely that some narratives will trump others, and that these will be almost exclusively male, as the predominantly white male elite on both sides of the channel negotiate the terms of Brexit.

We can conclude, perhaps, from Theresa May’s previous observation that there are “boys’ jobs” and “girls’ jobs”, that negotiating the terms of Brexit is a boys’ job. That, despite the Conservative manifesto pledge to tackle female underrepresentation: to work towards parity in the number of public appointments, to increase the number of women on company boards and to make sure civil service recruitment is as diverse as possible, these pledges are not being implemented. However, this is not just about counting women, but making women count. Indeed, according to Zillah Eisenstein “inclusion allows the partial renegotiation of the gendering and racing of power, but not a power shift. Exclusions expose the need for a power shift”. Women, she continues, often act as a “gender decoy…although the sex often changes, the gendered politics can and does remain the same”.

The variant of feminism that dominates in institutional settings is a liberal one, focusing on legal equality and opportunity, and making reference to gender equality, participation and representation. Liberal feminism is concerned with a problem-solving approach to gender inequality which privileges gender and thereby also privileges additive mechanisms as a remedy. The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action (BPA) called on various actors to encourage the participation of women (gender balancing), with a particular focus on political participation, as well as gender mainstreaming in all policy and practice.

The BPA has been disseminated in various forums, sites and institutions, including the European Union. For example, in 2015 the European Commission set a framework for the Commission’s future work towards gender equality (“Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality 2016-2019”), which focuses on promoting women in decision-making and in the economy. Indeed, the Treaty on the Function of the European Union (TFEU) goes beyond a general commitment to gender equality, to make gender mainstreaming a principle of all EU policies. However, little progress has been made on the provisional targets that were set. We can only conclude that the adoption of the partner-strategies of gender mainstreaming and gender balancing did not figure in the run up to Brexit negotiations – which is likely to consist of business-as-usual politics and policymaking, with a gender perspective remaining solely rhetoric rather than reality. While it would appear through rhetorical commitment that the liberal feminist agenda is being institutionalised in various settings – albeit it is an agenda that needs constant critical examination – it is apparent that even this liberal feminist agenda is being bypassed.

I do not suggest that addressing underrepresentation isn’t an important issue but it has been – alongside gender mainstreaming – the main vehicle for addressing the irrationality of gender inequality for predominantly western states – with varying demonstrable success and with little effect on gendered power structures. Thus, while underrepresentation is problematic for several reasons – we must be careful not to assume that more women at the negotiating table will lead to a different outcome, or a ‘softer’ Brexit. In fact, by discussing women only in gendered terms, gender is privileged as a social category, and the dominant trope of sexual essentialism is reiterated, thereby potentially reinscribing the very norms of masculinity and femininity.  Indeed, scholars have argued that liberal feminism often fails to highlight the gendered nature of power, and has limited potential to produce the radical reforms – both practically and discursively – that are required if we are to envision a world which transforms the way that politics is done.

Without critical feminist insights, making sense of the Brexit negotiations will only provide a partial perspective – not only of the three women sitting at the tables but of the entire process, its results and its consequences. Indeed, a critical feminist analysis is required not only to investigate the agendas that will be set, how particular decisions will be made and the deals that will be brokered, but also so that it can cast a critical gaze over the entire day-to-day running of these negotiations: the language that will be used, the seemingly ‘ordinary’ interactions and actions, the representational practices that will be enacted and the gendered exclusions that are already apparent. Indeed, we must take heed of Cynthia Enloe’s advice and subject the Brexit negotiations to a feminist curiosity. And, for a start, we can begin by scrutinising the lack of diversity around the big boys’ negotiating table.


Columba Achilleos-Sarll is an ESRC PhD candidate at the University of Warwick. Her research is located at the intersections between feminism, postcolonial theory, UK foreign policy and the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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