International Women's Day - how far have we come?

Written by:
Lester Holloway
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On International Womens Day, Runnymede's Policy Officer, Kimberly McIntosh looks at the impact of BME women on British society and reminds of how far we still have left to go.

International Women’s Day is a day of celebration and commemoration, a reference point to remind us to reflect on how far we’ve come. But for Race Equality researchers it’s an important reminder to champion the stories of BME women who paved the way for the progress we see in Britain today. But it’s also vital that we accurately portray the distance left to go.

Everyone has heard of Rosa Parks, many have heard of Angela Davis, but has enough attention been given to British BME women? What about Mrs Jayaben Desai, leader of the Grunwick strike against the low-pay and less desirable jobs that South Asian women were relegated to at the west London film-processing factory? Previously ignored by the Trade Union movement and branded as ‘hardworking and docile’ by their employer, these women won the support of the wider union movement (temporarily) and won some concessions on existing and future workers' pay. Most importantly, they challenged perceptions of Asian women and the treatment of migrant communities.

And what about Claudia Jones? Born in Trinidad, she was exiled from the US due to her dabbling in various communist activities. She arrived in the London and formed the country’s first major black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette. Following the Notting Hill riots of 1958, she was the chief organiser of the Notting Hill carnival to foster closer and cordial relations between residents. After the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane by white youths in Notting Hill in 1959, Claudia started campaigning against the mistreatment of BME people in Britain, forming the all-female Central Executive Committee of the Inter-Racial Friendship Co-ordinating Council. BME women fought not just for their own rights and recognition, but for race equality and the wider rights for workers too.

Today we see the fruits of their fight in the increased representation of BME women in political life and improved outcomes. The last election saw the largest number of BME women in parliament - 13% of women MPs are from an ethnic minority. Diane Abbott paved the way in 1987, and last year saw Preet Gill, Fiona Onasanya, Kemi Badenoch and Eleanor Smith swell the ranks. But we haven’t reached a panacea where parliament is a true reflection of our society’s demography. And the torrent of vile abuse that Diane is subjected to – 45% of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the six-week lead up to Election Day last year – shows that we haven’t quite reached the finish line in the race for race equality.

But there is some reason to celebrate. BME women are doing better and better in school. For most BME groups, attainment has risen since 1991. In 2015/16, BME girls outperformed their male counterparts in Maths GCSE. But we’re not seeing this translate to more success in the workplace. Barriers still hold BME women back in the workplace. Discrimination and stereotyping are unfortunately still salient issues, and Austerity policies have left them worse off than BME men and white men.

So this International Women’s Day – it’s important to appreciate and celebrate how far we have come, whilst recognising the fights still not won.

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