The make-up of the House of Commons is changing at a rapid rate, and is now home to the most diverse MPs to date. Just take the increase in LGBTQ+, ethnic minorities and disabled MPs elected last June. A record number of female MPs saw 208 women take their place, a far cry from 191 in 2015. So far, so progressive – or so it might seem.
However, the Director of 50:50 Parliament’s #AskHerToStand campaign is unconvinced that current progress towards political equality is anything but pitiful.
“It’s not good enough,” Dr Sonia Adesara insists. “We kind of assume that gender equality is going to happen – ‘give it a bit of time and we’ll get there’. But we’re so far off. Obviously we’ve made progress but particularly when it comes to gender equality in positions of power, we’re not progressing.
“Men outnumber women in Parliament by more than 2:1. According to the Fawcett Society, it’s going to take 50 years before we have gender equality in our Parliament.”
Dr. Sonia, who juggles working as a doctor for the NHS and communications officer for Doctors for Choice, as well as being a committee member of Campaign4Contraception, first came across 50:50 Parliament, the campaign to get more women elected, during Hilary Clinton’s book tour in September 2017. She recalls being “captivated” by 50:50 founder Frances Scott.
“She’s the most brilliant woman I’ve ever met,” she says. “She’s really full of life. She dedicates so much time and energy to this campaign.”
Dr Sonia was motivated to become part of the organisation after spotting parallels between mainstream politics and the NHS: “When I was a junior doctor, I noticed that while the majority of doctors were hard-working, brilliant women, leadership in the NHS tended to be by dominated by white men from similar backgrounds.”
The premise of #AskHerToStand is as simple as it sounds: a woman needs to be asked four times before she might think of putting herself forward for Parliament.
“If you think of a woman that could make a good politician, you give that positive encouragement to her and ask her to stand. That’s where it came from. They get in touch with me and I give them support.”
Dr Sonia stresses that entering politics might seem daunting, but that support is readily available.
“We have the right to engage in politics. It’s not for a certain type of person,” she insists. “What holds us back is a lack of confidence and self-doubt. You have a right to speak on these issues. Just go for it. We need women with life experience! We need a more diverse parliament.
“To all women: whether you want to get involved in local government or governing your school, just go for it.”
Although Dr Sonia isn’t from a political background or family, she had long harboured ambitions to be in a position of influence. “Growing up, my parents called me a crazy leftie!” she laughs. “There were certain issues I’d feel really frustrated about. I’m still the same.”
And greater representation in Parliament long-term, Dr. Sonia stresses, will lead to better outcomes for women in the UK.
She cites recent policies hitting them the hardest, yet these rarely, if ever, take women into account. Take austerity, where women have borne 86% of the burden since 2010. “I think the answer to that is having women in those positions where they’re making decisions. If you look at certain policies in recent years, I think it’s quite obvious for a lot of them, had there been more women making decisions, they wouldn’t necessarily have got [through],” she says. “Either women weren’t thought about when they made these policies, or they understood that and continued pushing forwards with them.”
She attributes the slashed funding for social care spending – which has shrunk by £7bn since 2010 – as a key example. “We’re more likely to be carers even if they’re in a paid or unpaid role,” she says.
The Equal Pay Act and UK parliamentary attempts to change the law on abortion in the UK and Northern Island, spearheaded by MP Stella Creasy, are testament to women’s visibility in Parliament, she says.
The inevitable impact this will have on people of colour, particularly women, has been a long-held concern for Dr. Sonia. “If you look at morality rates among women in pregnancy, the risk of death among black and Asian women is significantly higher than their white, British-born counterparts. There’s been no improvement and a lack of drive to do something about it,” she says. “If you’re not affected by it personally, it may not be at the forefront. If you’re a white man, it can be quite difficult to relate to the experiences of a single black woman bringing up children in inner city London struggling to make ends meet.”
Since 50:50’s inception, Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP for Canterbury, Whitstable and the surrounding villages, marks the first – and only – MP to have landed a seat in Parliament. “It’s a first for Labour – Canterbury’s always been a Tory seat,” Dr Sonia explains. “She comes from a very normal background. She’s a single mum and was working as a teaching assistant. She’s exactly the type of woman I want in parliament. She was someone who thought it wasn’t for her but she’s a brilliant MP.”
Beyond 50:50, Dr Sonia has raised awareness of the stigma of suicide and the silence surrounding this in the South Asian community, keeping the NHS public and anti-migrant policies leaving people without access to healthcare. She credits the Windrush scandal for the increased attention to these issues: “post-Windrush, people really started to understand [these issues]. You can picture your neighbour going through that.”
Ultimately, Dr Sonia hopes that within 50 years, 50:50’s aims will have been achieved and it’ll no longer need to exist. “I hope that by the next election, we won’t still need to be talking about needing more women in Parliament,” she affirms. But she warns that proactivity is what stands between achieving this. “If we’re complacent, we’re not going to get there,” she warns. “History has shown us. Look at the U.S. We have someone that’s openly misogynistic elected, who’s putting forward legislation curtailing women’s reproductive rights. There’s a risk we’re going backwards, not forwards. There’s no time to be complacent. This is the time.”
The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of women who are making a difference to society and to celebrate their success. See more Visible Women stories here.
Main image: Sarah Moore