Article featured in OnLondon
Rightfully, everyone has been discussing and celebrating the 100-year anniversary of (some) women getting the vote and the progress we have made for the rights of women in the UK. The passing of the Representation of the People Act was momentous. Giving women the vote meant that issues affecting women were finally given a focus in parliament and allowed them a voice and new power over their own lives.
But while I honour the anniversary alongside my colleagues, constituents and fellow women, it is difficult to overlook those who are still so underrepresented in public life. I am one of only two Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) female Assembly Members (AMs) at the Greater London Authority out of 25 in total. Two does not sound like a lot, and it isn’t. Yet that small number constitutes an 8% representation of BME women in City Hall which is, astonishingly, a greater proportion than is found across most other forms of public office.
The House of Commons and the House of Lords are terrible offenders for BME female representation. With only 4% (26) of MPs being BME women and a shameful 1.9% of peers, BME women are largely left out of national decision-making in the UK.
This situation is not only apparent at the top end of politics. Some other areas, such as the civil service and NHS, appear to be more representative when the profile of employees is looked at as a whole. But when rank is considered, representation among the more senior positions in our public bodies is incredibly low. For instance, whilst 7% of our judiciary is BME, there are no BME appointments at Heads of Division or Justice of Appeal levels.
Why is this the case? Why do BME women not appear more in public life? It certainly isn’t down to academic attainment. BME girls continue to perform well in our schools. With Black girls the only ethnic group that outnumber their male peers in taking science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) A-levels, and young women from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds more likely to succeed in education and go to university than any other, lack of education or potential to achieve do not provide an explanation.
Programmes that focus on improving representation in public life, such as Operation Black Vote’s MP Shadowing Scheme, are so important – I am pleased that they continue to open opportunities for BME women, by encouraging them to believe that they are qualified to fill such positions and to apply for them with confidence. However, it should not be down to BME women alone to bring about change.
We need to see a shift in the conversation and in attitudes and practices within the highest levels of our institutions if we wish to have better representation. I was pleased to see the launch of the BME Progression 2018 programme, commissioned by the College of Policing, to deliver a national improvement in the recruitment, development and retention of BME police officers and staff. Such studies and assessments within public bodies are necessary if we want to make progress in the near future.
Clearly there are complex, multi-faceted reasons behind the lack of representation for BME women that have and will continue to be debated. But its immediate consequence is that a large group of women are being left out of decision making in public organisations. We need to change that: more representative bodies produce better-informed decisions. BME women are a force for good within their communities, and this should be celebrated and utilised.
So as we applaud the progress in women’s representation over the last 100 years, we are also at an ideal time to look at who is still being left out and to tackle why that is. By working to change this we can continue to celebrate further achievements in female representation, preferably without having to wait for another 100 years.