Skip to content

Blog Post

Dear Liz Truss, focus on trading towards gender equality

Gender and trade, what’s the link?

After a short but notable delay, Liz Truss has replaced Amber Rudd as Secretary of State for Women and Equalities following Rudd’s resignation last week. Truss also holds the brief for the Department of International Trade. These portfolios are more closely linked than you might think. Our new policy briefing: Gender Impacts of Trade and Investment explains why:

Gender and trade, what’s the link?

Ninety per cent of everything we consume is traded so the effects of trade policy are felt by everybody but disproportionately by different groups of society. While trade might appear gender neutral at first glance, in reality it has a huge role to play in widening or closing inequalities, particularly those between women and men.

Sometimes, Free Trade Agreements (FTA) deregulate trade to make it cheaper, removing taxes, tariffs and ‘red tape’ – so often used as a euphemism for social protections. Workers’ rights can be written in to (or deliberately omitted from) FTAs which dictate how firms trade around the world and this has real consequences for women because gender norms that women are still responsible for the majority of unpaid care work which often has consequences for their engagement in the labour market.

Women – particularly BME and disabled women – are overrepresented in precarious labour including part time (73%), temporary (53%) and zero hour contracts (53.6%) work as well as being more vulnerable to cuts in public services or social security. This often leaves them more vulnerable to job losses or rights deterioration due to trade deregulation. At the national level, trade agreements have an impact on GDP which may also dictate how much money the government has to spend on public services relied on more by women and minority groups.

FTAs can also benefit or disadvantage women by increasing living costs like the prices of food and fuel. Women, particularly the poorest women, are often responsible for household budgeting and food preparation and most likely to ‘go without.’ When, for example, the price of tortillas increased in Mexico after they signed up to the North American Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA) it is women who have to manage this additional cost in the household alone.

These consequences are not foregone conclusions. FTAs can actually benefit gender equality by enrolling women in the labour market and increasing economic growth. But if women’s additional roles as carers are not taken into account GDP can soar while women’s status in society plummets. One cautionary tale study shows that countries which export more have an increased gender pay gap.

Why does this matter now?

As the UK looks to considerably rearrange our trading agreements after Brexit, the need to promote women’s rights via international trade is more important than ever. Conservative government ministers have made commitments to post-Brexit trade agreements that “support greater participation by women and underrepresented groups in the economy” and uphold gender equality. Will Liz Truss keep these promises?

The first hurdle is a no deal Brexit. A WBG report in 2018 shows that leaving the EU without a deal could create a double jeopardy for women’s rights. On the one hand we will lose the accountability of present and future European Directives and regulations. On the other, we will be desperate to make our struggling economy attractive to new international trading agreements. Like in any negotiation, if you’re desperate you could lose out. Except it’s unlikely to be an equal loss: women’s rights could easily be the price to pay for these ‘quick and dirty’ free trade agreements.

But it doesn’t have to be this way

New trade deals create an opportunity to place the rights of women and other marginalised groups front and centre of trade policy. A new report by WBG reveals three ways Liz Truss can dove-tail her new portfolios to better the lives of women in the UK and around the world: gender chapters, impact assessments and inclusive design.

By including explicitly legally-binding protections and promotions of women’s rights throughout FTAs Liz Truss be an international leader on women’s rights. By ensuring the impact on any trade deal is assessed as per its impact on all marginalised groups including women and ethnic minorities, she could ensure trade deals do no harm. And, by involving women’s civil society in these processes she could create a meaningful dialogue so that women’s voices are heard in the decisions that affect their lives.

Ultimately, the architects of FTAs including Liz Truss can make a decision to put people before profits or vice versa. They can write into international law commitments to women’s rights or they can protect corporate wealth. On paper gender equality and international trade might seem world’s apart, in reality, this dual-appointment is a real opportunity to change the way we trade here and around the world.

You can read and download our new briefing: Gender Impacts of Trade and Investment here

Related content


What will Brexit mean for Women?

The Women’s Budget Group invite members with interest in exploring the impact of Brexit on women’s rights to attend our policy discussion.