Elected in 2010 as Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah did not study politics. Instead, she graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, working her way up to the head of telecoms technology at Ofcom.
She campaigns on gender issues, is currently the Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation, and previously told New Statesman that Parliament was "the most diverse working environment" she'd ever been in. (According to the Women's Engineering Society, the UK has the lowest number of female engineers in Europe.) But, as she explains, there is still some way to go.
What was the political climate like when you entered politics? And what is being a female MP like now?
When I was younger, I remember thinking that being the MP for the place you grew up would be the most amazing thing — but I didn’t think that would be me, I just did not see anyone like me who was an MP. In fact if it wasn’t for all-women shortlists, I wouldn’t have stood for selection in Newcastle Central.
Now, in retrospect, I think I would have had a really good chance in an open selection. I underestimated my abilities and I overestimated the requirements of the job. Don’t get me wrong, this is a really challenging job and politics isn’t easy, but I thought you had to be perfect and a genius.
Parliament does still feel like a boys' public school; I often feel I am followed around by dead white men in tights. And female MPs are subjected to high levels of vitriol on social media. I regularly come off social media for a couple of days or so, because of the levels of abuse on certain issues.
What would you like to celebrate this International Women's Day?
It is inspiring to see women and working class women in particular take action. The WASPI campaign and others such as the successful Repeal movement in Ireland and the Democrat women standing for office in the U.S. show what women can do when we unite and act together.
What still needs to be improved for women in the UK?
Getting more women into politics matters as a fundamental point of democracy — how can a representative democracy work if the representation is not representative? But it also matters in practical terms. As the Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, I am looking at how the economy works — or doesn’t.
Women today are struggling in low wage, temporary, and insecure work: one in four women are now earning less than the living wage. Men can have the best will in the world — though not all of them do — but if women aren’t in the room, making the decisions, our interests will not be reflected in the outcomes.
My favourite example of this is from tech, not politics. When [Apple] developed a health app, they wanted to make sure it supported all aspects of users’ health. And it did, if you were a man. They forgot about periods. Because not one person designing the app had ever had one.
What is your message for any woman considering a political career?
Don’t wait. Representing your community, making a difference, changing the world: that needs to happen now. So please do it — bring your experiences, your insight, your busy complicated female lives to politics. God knows we need you!