Has Sexism Become A Barrier To A Brexit Breakthrough? This week, the British parliament once again rejected a plan by Prime Minister Theresa May's to leave the European Union. NPR's Korva Coleman speaks with Hannah Peaker, a leader of the Women's Equality party, about May's leadership and her critics.

Has Sexism Become A Barrier To A Brexit Breakthrough?

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We're going to turn now to the latest on Brexit. Tomorrow, the United Kingdom's Parliament will vote on several options for leaving the European Union as the U.K. scrambles to avoid crashing out of the EU without a deal in April. Prime Minister Theresa May could also bring her Brexit plan back to Parliament for a fourth time or lose the leadership post altogether if an election is called.

The chaos has brought renewed criticisms of May herself, who had promised to resign if her deal passed last week. To break down that criticism, we've called Hannah Peaker. She's the chief of staff for the Women's Equality Party, which advocates for gender equality and more women in politics in the U.K. Hannah Peaker joins us now from London. Welcome, Hannah.


COLEMAN: Your group looks at the specific challenges that women in politics face. Do you think that sexism has played a role in criticism of Theresa May's handling of Brexit?

PEAKER: Absolutely. I mean, I think sexism or gender inequality has played a huge part in Brexit and the genesis of Brexit altogether, and that that has manifested itself most recently in very gendered criticism of Theresa May of it being about her inability to negotiate the right deal for the U.K. and that being about her gender.

There's a phenomenon called the glass cliff, you know, akin to the glass ceiling, where women and minorities are much more likely to rise to senior positions in a time of crisis. And the problem with that is that you're much more likely to fail. And when women and minorities fail in those positions, it then has that circular effect of saying that it's based on their gender or their ethnicity. And therefore, we can't trust them to take on those positions. And I think Theresa May is right there.

You know, the referendum was absolutely a crisis created by men. And what she's been criticized for alongside that is, you know, it's all about her inability to be human. You know, is she able to carry off these negotiations as someone who is not soft enough, who doesn't have those things we come to expect women to have?

COLEMAN: So let me push back on that a little bit. One American newspaper columnist, Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post, called Theresa May, simply, the worst prime minister in living memory. Applebaum says the problems May is facing are problems that May created - the unnecessary secrecy of her repudiated Brexit plan, calling snap elections in 2017 in which her party lost terribly. What if Theresa May is just a terrible leader? Do we have language that we can use for women being terrible leaders because they're bad leaders?

PEAKER: Right. Absolutely. And that's what makes this conversation so difficult because how do you say this in a way that doesn't sound like praise for her or forgiveness for her mistakes? There is nothing forgivable about May's leadership failures. But the ways in which we talk about it, you know - and interestingly, the article that you cited there, the language is shifted around Theresa May to calling her Mrs. May, for example...

COLEMAN: And that's objectionable?

PEAKER: ...Not the prime minister, and certainly not Theresa May. It's this trap that she is caught in where she is displaying power, which isn't acceptable to people, for a woman to be displaying power in that way.

COLEMAN: So are there other criticisms of her leadership that are not related to Brexit?

PEAKER: Oh, absolutely. There are vast criticisms of her leadership. Austerity is the single biggest criticism. It doesn't have popularity in many quarters anymore. But in terms of whether the criticism is balanced or gendered or, you know, this - a lot of people will say this has nothing to do with gender. Well, you have to remember 2017, the Daily Mail front page - Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, who is the first minister for Scotland, and the front page of The Daily Mail said never mind Brexit, what about Legs-it. And it had a picture of the two women and comparing who had the better legs. So there is no way in which that is an ungendered criticism.

COLEMAN: Have criticisms of Prime Minister May evolved over the course of Brexit?

PEAKER: Absolutely. So though she was not considered to be doing a brilliant job from the outset, there was a kind of national feeling that gosh, she was doing probably as well as most people could do. And then of course, the men who stepped back to give her power started circling again to take back power at the moment that it starts to seem like we might be moving towards Brexit, the outcome they want, or not moving towards it. And at that point, the language really, really shifted. And it stepped up. And you had people briefing against her.

We are now, this week, in a position where they have said it is a condition of our support - her own members of Parliament within her party - it is a condition of our support for your deal that you resign. So that is a you know, a very explicit example of the ways in which they expect her to move aside so that they can get on with negotiating it.

COLEMAN: That was Hannah Peaker, chief of staff for the Women's Equality Party of the U.K. Thank you, Hannah.

PEAKER: Thank you.

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