This Is The Truth About Being A Woman In Parliament Right Now, According To 5 MPs
by Lauren Sharkey
Female MP in Parliament wearing a suit and smiling for a photo
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Entering politics as a woman can mean putting yourself in the firing line. Female politicians are often harassed and threatened by anonymous figures online and can even be dismissed by male colleagues in real life. But they still turn up to their job each and every day. This International Women's Day, it's time to highlight the female MPs to support in the UK.

Parliament still has some way to go before reaching full gender equality. Just over 30 percent of MPs are currently women, reports Stylist, and although the UK has a female Prime Minister, only 26 percent of the cabinet is made up of women.

Recognising that fighting for your rights is sometimes impossible when you're absent from the political conversation, the following women all joined politics with clear aims. Some have been in the political game for years; others are newer. But they have all broken through barriers and all deserve a place in history.

I spoke to five MPs to get their thoughts on being a woman in politics, on how to break into a Parliamentary career, and what crucial work still needs to be done in the UK. Whether you support the party they represent or not, there's something to learn from every single individual. You'll also find a further six women who you should have on your radar. Here's my list of 11 female MPs to stand behind this International Women's Day.


Tulip Siddiq

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Back in January, proceedings of a crucial Brexit vote were overtaken by footage of a heavily pregnant MP being wheeled into the House of Commons. That woman was Tulip Siddiq. It was revealed that outdated political laws meant she had postponed her Caesarean to have her say on Brexit.

Siddiq joined the Labour party at the age of 16, states The Sun, and was elected MP for Hampstead and Kilburn in 2015 after a career which, reports the Huffington Post, has included working for Amnesty International and campaigning for Barack Obama.

What is being a female MP in the current political climate really like?

Parliament is an outdated institution, and very set in its ways. If you want to change things in Westminster, you really have to fight for it. A good example is Proxy Voting. This system is vital for pregnant MPs, and those with child-caring responsibilities. Traditionally, male MPs have been less affected by these issues and so it’s been up to women to campaign for change.

What would you like to celebrate this International Women's Day?

I’d like to celebrate the EU. We often talk about the EU in terms of trade or the economy, but the fact is it’s done a huge amount for women. It funds services for domestic abuse survivors and gives us strong laws on equal pay, parental leave, and sex discrimination. I’m concerned that, given their rhetoric about deregulation, the Conservatives will roll back these if we leave.

What still needs to be improved for women in the UK?

It’s vitally important that we improve child care. Most of us are aware of the gender pay gap — where women earn nine percent less than men. But we’re less aware of the "motherhood penalty" — where mothers are paid on average three percent less. A lack of flexible, affordable child care in the UK is partly to blame for this. Part of my work as MP has been looking at how the government can do better in this area. I really hope to see improvements.

What would you say to any woman considering a political career?

Be brave and support each other. Research shows that women are half as likely than men to consider themselves potential candidates for elected office. If you don’t think politics is for you, ask yourself why not. There are many barriers to getting women in politics, but the first one is definitely psychological.


Dawn Butler

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Dawn Butler has been a voice for many. Speaking on topics including gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and ethnic minority issues, she has a particular passion for the former having been elected Labour's Women and Equalities Minister in 2017. Butler also serves as MP for Brent Central and was the third black woman to become a member of Parliament, reports the Independent. (Diane Abbott and Oona King preceded her.)

Recently, she has also highlighted the need for monitoring party diversity to ensure candidates from all backgrounds have the chance to enter politics. "Representation matters for politics," she wrote for LabourList, "not just for its own sake, but because it shifts the balance of power, brings politics closer to people, affects which issues are heard or ignored."

What was politics like when you first started?

When I was first elected, I was one of only two black women MPs. For me, this was hard and often soul-destroying. Besides the fact that eight out of 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.”

It was even more so when I became the first black woman to speak at the despatch box as a Minister in the UK. I remember Sadiq Khan, who was an MP at the time, sat next to me for moral support whilst I was heckled.

What would you like to highlight this International Women's Day?

This year, I would like to highlight the importance of flexible working and tackling the gender pay gap. As women, we do the vast majority of unpaid care for family and loved ones, but this must not become a barrier to our professional progression. That’s why last month I announced plans to introduce rights to flexible working from day one of employment.

I’d also like to celebrate how far we are progressing in terms of period positivity. It’s liberating that the discussion around menstruation is no longer seen as a taboo subject.

What still needs to be improved for women in the UK?

Quite simply, life needs to be improved. Sadly, I still see division in the feminist movement. I want to see a celebration of all the diversity within the feminist movement, a recognition of one another’s struggle and champion the fight together. It is intersectionality and diversity that allow us to view the world through different lenses and points of views. So we need to start fighting for everyone’s rights as if they were our own.

What is your message for any woman considering a political career?

Jump in and get involved with your local party. If you feel passionately about an issue, I would recommend following my CORE principle: Campaign, Organise, Recruit, and Educate.

Use your voice to mobilise others and find people who share your vision and values; I can’t stress enough the importance of having good people and true friends around you. At the same time, know that you will not be universally liked, and make peace with that.


Mhairi Black

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Baby of the House is Mhairi Black's unofficial parliamentary title. But don't let that slightly patronising label lead you to underestimate the 24-year-old. Elected as a Scottish National Party (SNP) MP at the tender age of 20, Black made history by becoming the youngest ever MP to be elected to the House of Commons, reports the Sun.

In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, she described Parliament as a "a complete boys' club. I'm young, female, gay, I'm SNP, so [I'm] hardly the most popular down in Westminster. But even when I'm there, I am taken aback by in the first instance, how patronising some folk were, and [in] the second instance, how sexist people were." But still she carries on.

What is being a female MP in the current political climate really like?

The current political climate has shone a light on how much work we have left to do in terms of gender equality. We are only now taking the time to focus on just how entrenched gender inequality still is within our political and social structures. Compared to when I first started in politics, I think misogynists, homophobes, and racists are beginning to feel more threatened as they realise that the world is challenging their views — and doing so successfully.

What would you like to celebrate this International Women's Day?

The legend that is my mum.

What still needs to be improved for women in the UK?

We have a long way to go until we live in a society free from gender discrimination. Rather than trying to stuff women into our institutions and public structures, we have to concede that all of these structures were created by men and for men. Therefore, I argue that we need to make radical changes to our political and economic structures as they stand if we can want any meaningful and enduring progress.

What is your message for women considering a career in politics?

Make sure you have thought about issues longer and harder than anyone else. Know what you think and make sure you can explain why you think it. If you can do that, then there is no reason you shouldn’t get involved in politics. The only way we can make the changes to our structures is if we have good people who can argue with sense as to why things need to change. We need more women in politics.


Chi Onwurah

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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!


Maria Miller

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Maria Miller has had many titles. Currently the Conservative MP for Basingstoke, she is also the chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. Previous roles have included Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport, and Minister for Women and Equalities.

In 2017, Miller told the Guardian that she had been sexually harassed "numerous times" and has advised teachers in particular to be stricter when it comes to such harassment in schools. "At the moment, I think, it’s being written off as being child’s play and it’s simply not that. It’s a crime and it needs to be reported.”

What is being a female MP in the current political climate really like?

Being elected to represent your community in Parliament is an incredible responsibility and an incredible privilege, now more than ever. We need to make sure women's voices are heard loudly in the Brexit debate.

And what was it like when you first started in politics?

I was shocked back in 2005 that I was only the 265th women to ever be elected to the House of Commons. After having spent 20 years in the advertising world before becoming an MP, Parliament was a shock to my system — women were literally shoehorned into a workplace and job completely shaped around a men-only world. That has started to change but there is still much more to do and the Women and Equality Select Committee that I chair has an important role in pressing for that change.

What would you like to highlight this International Women's Day?

I want women to have the same opportunity to succeed as men. That is why I am campaigning to support the new UN Convention to outlaw harassment at work.

What still needs to be improved for women in the UK?

There are record numbers of women in work and much to celebrate as more young women graduate from our best universities with the best degrees. But too often women find it difficult if they also have caring responsibility for children or older family members. More good quality flexible working along with better protection for pregnant women at work are a few of the issues we need to address urgently.

What is your message for any woman considering a political career?

There can be no greater way to give back to your community than to stand for election. The House of Commons needs people from every walk of life to make sure we take the best decisions for our country. Standing for Parliament should be something every woman should consider.


Jess Phillips

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Jess Phillips has been embedded in politics since she was a child. "Growing up with my father was like growing up with Jeremy Corbyn," she once told the Observer. So it's understandable that she went on to study economics, social history, and social policy at university, reports the Times.

It's Phillips' work for women that has really impressed. Before becoming a Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, she worked for Women's Aid, supporting and defending women. In 2015, she was elected, kickstarting a political career that has revolved around bravely — and emotionally — speaking the truth.

In 2016, Phillips became chair of the Women's Parliamentary Labour Party, reports the Mirror. A year later, she wrote her first book, Everywoman: One Woman's Truth About Speaking the Truth, about being a woman in British politics. Her ultimate goal is to change the view that all MPs are the same, telling the Guardian: "Because while they believe that, the establishment stays in the same people’s hands. Nothing changes."


Caroline Lucas

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Caroline Lucas has had a pretty lengthy political career. You'll probably know her as being the former leader of the Green Party, the UK's first Green MP, and one of the few politicians to stand behind the children striking from school in a bid to force the government to do something about climate change.

First joining the Green Party in 1986, Lucas became its leader in 2008. In 2010, she was elected MP for Brighton Pavilion. Her activism — which, states the BBC, started with nuclear disarmament protests while she was a university student — has never ceased. In 2013, she was even arrested and charged with obstructing a public highway for protesting against fracking. A court later found her not guilty, reports the Guardian.

Environmental concerns are her top priorities, but she remains resolutely positive about the future. "The evidence is really shocking. We have less than 12 years to get off the collision course that we’re on; my generation has let you down," she told students at a climate justice protest, reports the Express & Star. "In the last 12 months, there’s only been one debate on climate change in Parliament. There is a better way forward."


Yvette Cooper

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Yvette Cooper is "the real leader of the opposition," a source told GQ. She has worked as a journalist, health minister, and Shadow Foreign Secretary, and was the first woman to hold the position of Chief Secretary to the Treasury, reports the Guardian. She has vied for leadership of the Labour Party, losing to Ed Miliband in 2015. And now, she could well be on the way to reaching that goal.

Currently the MP for Normanton, Pontefract, and Castleford, Cooper has looked into the European refugee crisis, and offered public thoughts on immigration, modern slavery, and domestic abuse.

One of her most famous working relationships (or should I say rivalries) is with the Prime Minister. The pair have been working on opposite sides of the bench for two decades, meaning Cooper may know Theresa May a little too well for her liking. This was seen in November when she questioned May on Brexit. "Knowing you for 20 years, I just don’t believe that if your deal goes down you are the kind of person who would contemplate taking this country into a no-deal situation. Am I wrong?” she asked. A question which May struggled to answer.


Yasmin Qureshi

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Born in Pakistan, Yasmin Qureshi moved to the UK at the age of nine, reports the Manchester Evening News. Politics wasn't her first career move. Instead, she trained as a barrister, working with the UN Mission in Kosovo on issues including domestic violence and people trafficking. In 2010, she was elected Labour MP for Bolton South East, making her one of the UK's first female MPs, reports the Guardian. She remains in the position to this day.

Throughout her political career, the 55-year-old has campaigned on several matters. She was one of the prominent voices in favour of the upskirting bill that finally criminalised the act in January 2019. And she set up the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on religion in the media, starting a political conversation on how faith is discussed in society.

One of her most striking quotes? Shortly after the 2017 Westminster terrorist attack, she told Time: "When Jo Cox’s murder happened last year, I didn’t stop doing my open surgery. I didn’t stop canvassing or knocking on doors. I’m not going to let anyone ever make me too afraid to do my job."


Margaret Beckett

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The longest serving female MP in British history, Margaret Beckett has been representing the people of Derby South since 1983. As the BBC reports, she has a list of firsts: the first female leader of the Labour Party (even if it was only for a brief 10 weeks), the first female deputy Labour leader, the first female Foreign Secretary. She was even given a damehood in 2013.

Now 76, Beckett has received her fair share of criticism. But she refuses to focus solely on issues that affect her gender, instead diving into areas such as trade and manufacturing. “I shouldn’t have to specialise in women’s issues because I’m a woman. And I didn’t," she told Scottish magazine Holyrood last year.

As Leader of the House of Commons between 1998 and 2001, she sought to modernise Parliament in some ways. But she wasn't surprised that there was little preparation for Brexit, telling Holyrood that "one of the weirdest theories of government" she had ever heard came from the mouth of former Prime Minister David Cameron. When asked about the impact of Scottish independence, Cameron reportedly said: "No, we haven’t made any preparations because you don’t plan for things you don’t want to happen." If ever there was proof that politics needs a shake-up, that is it.


Jo Swinson

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Deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson is a trailblazer for gender equality. As the BBC reports, she was the first MP to bring a baby to a Commons debate, believes that positive discrimination methods such as tokenism are not the way to help inequality, and encourages young people to get involved in politics.

She has been an active member of the Lib Dems since the age of 17, reports the Guardian, and was elected as the MP for East Dunbartonshire in 2005. (She lost her seat in 2015 but was re-elected two years later and still holds the position today.) At the time of her original election, she was the youngest member of the House of Commons aka the Baby of the House.

In 2018, she published her first book, Equal Power: Gender Equality and How to Achieve It, offering advice for people to make changes in their own homes and workplaces. "We need to encourage people not just to sit on the sidelines and feel annoyed with the way the world is going, but do what they can to sort it out, and I think together we can do that," she told New Statesman.


If you'd like to make a difference as a politician, visit 50:50 Parliament for advice and support on standing as a candidate.