Only 490 women have ever been elected to the UK’s parliament. Compare that to the 442 men who are sitting in the House of Commons today, and you really start to see the scale of the problem. Even now, still only 32 per cent of MPs are female. The road to parliament for women is not an easy one – and it’s not just parliament where women are under-represented. Influential positions across public life – from other elected positions including councillors, to leadership positions in both the private and charitable sectors – are all too often dominated by men.
For any woman interested in politics or another prominent public role, the challenge can seem insurmountable. That’s why programmes like the Fabian Women’s Network’s (FWN) mentoring and political education programme are vital. I’ve been a mentee on the scheme since last September, and with applications for cohort 8 now open, here is a snapshot of my own experience on the programme. Hopefully, it can help to convince you to put in an application yourself.
I came into the programme hoping to learn more about the process of standing for elected positions, and how to cope with the challenges women face when putting themselves forward. Throughout the year, our cohort had the chance to meet several female MPs who generously gave their time to share their experiences and advice on standing for office, and I also had a female MP as my mentor who I had several one to one meetings with. I have spoken to so many female MPs over the last few months that the female experience of politics has started to feel normal and unexceptional to me. Not only have I learnt more about the process, but it feels closer and more possible than it ever could have before.
The programme also included multiple training sessions, on topics including campaigns, public speaking, advice on how to trouble-shoot issues at work, and eye-opening networking sessions with some amazing senior women. In one such session, I learnt about the process of becoming a charity trustee or a school governor, roles I never would have realised I’m qualified for beforehand. And perhaps most importantly, from the onset the wonderful FWN coordinators, Christine and Caroline, made it clear that we are also here to teach and develop ourselves, and not just take advice from others. We have chaired our own sessions and organised ourselves to share the skills we have with one another.
For me, circumstance meant the biggest benefit I had from the mentoring programme was completely unexpected. This February, suddenly and without warning, I lost my mum. I will never forget the support and friendship the women on the programme have given me in the months since. Our trip to visit the European Parliament in Brussels was only three weeks after my mum died. Without the support I knew I had from my cohort, I never would have even considered going. But I am so glad that I did, and I know my mum would have been too.
The mentoring programme not only gave me invaluable personal support in the last few months, but it also helped me to reassemble myself during the most difficult period of my life, so that throughout, I’ve managed to keep hold of my sense of self, and to remember the dreams my mum would have wanted me to continue to follow.
The FWN mentoring scheme gives you the chance to have a network of inspirational women to support you, gives you the opportunity to learn how to cope with new challenges and develop your own skills as well as those of others, and gives you countless opportunities to ask questions of senior women in public life.
Please don’t think you aren’t involved enough already, or that you don’t know enough about politics to apply. As women, we too often underestimate our own abilities. The women in my cohort came from a wide range of different backgrounds, with varying levels of previous political experience. Together, we formed a network I have found invaluable for advice and support. It is a truly fantastic programme – I hope you apply.