This article examines the development of the EU’s gender equality framework of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ law, including the incomplete gender mainstreaming of the European Employment Strategy. It highlights contradictions, rooted in political tensions between the social democratic principles which underpin the European Social Model, and the promotion of neo-liberal economic policies. It assesses the UK’s role in shaping this European framework, and the framework’s impact on the UK’s employment policy. It concludes that Brexit will harm the pursuit of gender equality in the UK due to decoupling from the EU’s equality framework and policy pathway. An additional risk is greater insularity in UK policy making through reduced exposure to the Open Method of Coordination. Brexit may, however, help progress gender equality in the rest of the EU if the outcome is greater unity focussed on an inclusive employment policy without the UK dragging its heels in favour of deregulated flexibility.