Unbeknown to me I was always political. I would fight for my rights and the rights of others just because it was, in my very strong opinion, the right thing to do. My father was very influential in my life as the de facto shop steward in the railways, I would sit on the living room floor listening to stories of battles won and lost at work.
It was no wonder then that I became a trade union official and joined the Labour Party, the political party that made my parents feel welcome when they arrived from Jamaica. The values that I hold dear like fairness, equality and justice are the DNA of the Labour Party and that is why I am proud to serve as the Member of Parliament for Brent Central.
When I became the first black female MP to ever be appointed as a minister in the UK government and the first black female MP to speak from the despatch box in 2009, it was a momentous and proud occasion. But it was tainted by the fact that I felt the horror and disgust from some of the MPs opposite. So much so that a Conservative MP tried to disparage me and criticise and question my grasp of English. He rose to his feet on the floor of the House and said “Will the Minister very kindly stop this assault on the English language? Can we drop these awful terms such as “upskilling” and “third sector”.
Ten years later much has changed, for a start upskilling and third sector are now commonly used terms, but the battle to be recognised and not ridiculed as a black woman is still a constant battle. Much more needs to be done to accomplish the change that is really needed.
In my roles as Member of Parliament for Brent Central and Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, I am determined to make those changes and accelerate the progress of change and help tackle the structural barriers that still exist in society that prevent progress for so many people. Gender equality is an incredibly important goal which I work towards every single day.
To build a fairer society we must tackle all injustices. A fairer society should be judged on the basis that we measure success by the obstacles we overcome.
One such example from the UK includes the most recent data from the Office of National Statistics’ Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, which showed that the median gender pay gap for all employees was 17.9%
A very high differential when in 2018 we celebrated the passing of the Parliament Qualification Act, which laid the foundation for the first women being able to stand for Parliament – a suffrage landmark.
We also marked the 90th anniversary of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, which gave women over the age of 21 equal voting rights to men. It took another 10 years before equal franchise was achieved where women and men at the age of 18 could vote. What struck me about many celebrations last year was that it was almost overlooked that all men received the voting rights but only some women, this was to ensure that men always had the majority say.
Therefore when it comes to equality we have to be forever vigilant, we need to reflect on how far we’ve come but also be mindful of how far we still need to go to achieve full equality. We need to strive for greater inclusive progress.
The Sustainable Development Goals are an important part of this. Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. This goal rightly says that gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. Together, all around the world, we must continue making progress towards this important aim.
I am pleased to have worked internationally with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association on these issues and more, including attending Commonwealth Day where I spoke to so many young people from across the Commonwealth. Young people are our present and future and they are paramount in ensuring we achieve these Sustainable Development Goals and bring about real positive change in society.
As young people start creating ways of elevating others and forcing change and progress, it gives us hope that Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals is achievable. One such initiative are inclusion riders where actors refuse to act in a film unless there is diversity behind and in the pipeline of a film.
I know from personal experience just how important allies are and the difference it makes to have more than one ‘other’ at the table. In 2005 Diane Abbott and I were the only two black female MPs. For me this was hard and often soul destroying. Besides the fact that 8/10 times I was called Diane and not by my actual name, I recall the moment I was in a lift on my way to committee and was told by another Member of Parliament that “this lift isn’t for cleaners”.
Roll forward 13 years later although there are more women of colour in Parliament, being wrongly identified is still very prevalent and sadly the abuse has not stopped. As a black female Member of Parliament, I suffer abuse on a daily basis, as do so many of my colleagues.
We need to do so much more to achieve equality and ensure that everyone, no matter their gender or background, feels like they belong exactly where they are and that they can do and achieve anything.
There are so many challenges holding back gender equality – and at the heart of it is valuing the role that women play in society.
Women’s Economic Empowerment:
At the heart of the gender pay gap are several issues; discrimination, the undervaluing of roles predominantly done by women, the unequal distribution of labour with more women in part-time low-paid jobs, the dominance of men in best paid positions and unequal caring responsibilities. Tackling these issues must be our main priority if we are to see sustainable change in workplaces an in the home.
To remove structural barriers, it is imperative that you chip away at the foundations which contribute and build on policies that encourage transparency.
One of the policies I have been campaigning for is to require all large private and public employers to obtain government certification of their gender equality practices or face further auditing or fines. They must produce action plans demonstrating how they will tackle issues of recruitment, progression, pay and work/life balance. Under a Labour government only companies with this certification will be considered for government contracts. This is important because there is no guarantee that the gap will close over time – it needs significant action from Government, businesses, and society.
Labour are pledging to introduce mandatory race pay gap reporting for large companies, alongside company action plans, to encourage businesses to tackle racial discrimination in the workplace. These steps are about encouraging companies to take ownership of the issues and encouraging them to be exemplar employers.
We must ensure there is better provision and greater take up of parental leave and more affordable childcare. Only then will we have more balanced workplaces and homes, because as we know, women continue to play a greater role in caring for children and sick or elderly relatives.
Just 7% of engineering apprenticeships achieved last year were undertaken by women. And at the top, men continue to dominate the most senior and best paid roles – in 2018, only seven Chief Execs in the FTSE 100 were women. We must support women’s journeys into male-dominated sectors.
If we are going to evoke change we must examine the intentions of the goalkeepers of businesses and their unconscious bias. That is why, to tackle the underrepresentation of women and people of colour in positions of power, I believe we must implement the Parker Review recommendations to increase diversity on boards.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates 54,000 mothers a year are forced to leave their jobs early after they become pregnant. So one of the things we must do to tackle gender inequality is create a more balanced and flexible working environment for all.
A holistic approach to economic empowerment means tackling the things that unfairly hold women back. Another policy that I am proud of is Labour’s policy to end period poverty. In the UK on average, every female spends around £5000 in their lifetime on menstruating products.
Low income families shouldn’t have the additional burden of struggling to afford sanitary products; or homeless women suffering on the streets; or young people missing school once a month because they just can’t afford sanitary protection. Labour has pledged to provide free sanitary products in schools, colleges and foodbanks, as well as free prescriptions for sanitary protection or reusable cups. This is just one part of my vision to bring about gender equality and the economic empowerment of women.
Representation matters in politics – not just for its own sake, but because it shifts the balance of power, brings politics closer to more people who are directly affected by policies. Diversity can also dictate which issues are heard or ignored.
Fifty-one percent of the population are women and since 1918, just 491 women have served in the UK Parliament. There were 208 female MPs elected at the UK 2017 General Election – 32% of all MPs. This is the highest ever number and proportion so clearly we are making progress, but it is not anywhere near fast enough if we are to reach true representation.
Even more of an effort needs to be made on diversity. 52 MPs in the House of Commons are from non-white backgrounds, 8% of the total. This is compared to around 14% of the whole UK population who are from a non-white background.
One of the simplest steps that could improve diversity in our politics is to enact Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, which includes a requirement for political parties to publish the demographic makeup of their election candidates, for instance, BAME and disabled etc. Previous research has shown that transparency can be a driving force for change.
The UK Parliament has agreed to introduce a trial of proxy voting for MPs on baby leave. This is a welcome but small step to bring Parliament into the twenty-first century. As a feminist and a campaigner, I have been left asking what about the MPs who are hospitalised, MPs with cancer? These small steps sometimes need to be a leap. Too often we have seen the indignity of MPs being wheeled into parliament in a wheelchair to vote, or MPs being aided to walk into the lobbies to vote. As a shop steward I would not accept that in any other work place.
I have always said that we will know that we have achieved true equality in Parliament and in positions of power when there are as many rubbish women as rubbish men sitting in the seats of power.
It is important that in tackling gender inequality we take intersectionality seriously. Intersectionality is where people’s overlapping identities and experiences interact in the complex prejudices they face. Intersectionality, is about double, triple or quadruple discrimination people face. I myself have been subjected to multiple layers of discrimination and when confronting said discrimination I have not always had the support of white feminists and this used to confuse me.
Identity isn’t one-dimensional, but our current legislation means that you can only bring a discrimination claim on the grounds of one aspect of your identity. This is hugely problematic for individuals such as older white women, Muslim women or disabled Black women for example, who can’t claim pay discrimination on multiple identity grounds. We must change that. And I was proud to announce that a Labour government would change just that.
Violence Against Women and Girls:
Sadly violence against women and girls continues to be a global epidemic, affecting an estimated one in three women worldwide. We will not be able to achieve women’s economic empowerment or greater women’s representation if we cease to value women and if women are not safe. I am pleased that a Labour government will appoint a commissioner to set new standards for tackling domestic and sexual violence.
We will also make age-appropriate sex and relationship education a compulsory part of the curriculum so young people can understand, appreciate and learn about respectful relationships. So that young people fully understand what it means to understand power and consent. We will strengthen the law, banning the use of community resolutions as a response to domestic violence. And we must ensure that under the Istanbul Convention, disability hate crime and violence against women with disabilities is reported annually, with national actions plans to address these issues.
The response I received after announcing the domestic abuse policy made me stop in my tracks. Person after person approached me, each one tearful, some spoke in hushed tones telling me how this policy would have changed their lives, a landmark new policy to ensure that employers introduce workplace domestic abuse policies and provide up to ten days paid leave for victims of domestic violence. This will allow women and men to leave their abusive partners safely and get the help, protection and support they need knowing their livelihood is secure.
Radical Workplace Revolution:
I firmly believe we must lead a radical workplace revolution to ensure that employees no longer have to rely on the ladder of success. Because this ladder of success has held women and people of colour back for too long. How many times have we heard people say they did all that was asked of them, worked extra unsociable hours. Yet they were still unable to take the next step.
In most cases men seem to seamlessly rise up this ladder of success with little effort or set back.
So instead of relying on the shaky ladder of success, I am determined instead to build the foundations of an escalator of success. Where as a government we remove the structural barriers, and career progression along with pay progression are transparent so that employees are treated well, promoted fairly and equally. And companies are held to account and their good practices rewarded, where we ensure strong workplace protections are in place, and when people need it, there is access to justice.
Throughout this journey, we must remember that the pursuit of gender equality must include everyone – that includes our LGBTQ+ community, women of colour, disabled women, older women, working class women, single mums, as well as other groups who are traditionally underrepresented.
My overarching belief is that equality is equality, you cannot pick and choose. That means we must fight for the rights of everyone as if they were our own.
Together, we can achieve it.