Ahead of International Women’s Day 2018, every day this week inspirational women are sharing the things they wish they’d known earlier in their careers. Here Labour MP Chi Onwurah starts us off.
“MPs did not look like me, and they didn’t sound like me, so I didn’t think it was a possible career path,” says Chi Onwurah, 52, who has been the MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central since March 2010. Elected the first time she ran for office with a 40% majority, the Labour MP and now shadow minister for industrial strategy attributes much of her popularity to the fact she is not a career politician – she previously had a successful career as as an engineer and consultant in Denmark, France, the US and Nigeria .
Her childhood self would have been thrilled at her current job. “I would have been really, really happy if someone had told me I would end up here.” she says. “I would have thought they were having me on.”
Onwurah didn’t really have a career plan when she was a teenager - “I just wanted to do something that really interested me” - although her natural aptitude for politics was evident to Onwurah’s peers, who at 17 elected her ‘MP’ for her secondary school, Kenton Comprehensive.
The MP grew up on a council estate; her mother had a disability and depended on the NHS and the family “had no money”. Onwurah left her home city, where her grandfather had been a metal worker in the Tyne shipyards and her father a student at Newcastle medical school, for the first time when she went to Imperial College London to study electrical engineering .
After graduating in 1987, she moved to the US to work, only to find the company she was working for go bankrupt overnight. “I was stranded. With my visa running out, they couldn’t pay me to come home, but I couldn’t stay without becoming illegal,” she says. “It was a real low point.”
“I half expected if you’re going to become an MP, some hand would come down from the sky and pick you out... "”
The situation was, however, a good lesson, Onwurah argues, saying that with retrospect she values the experience and the resilience and confidence it instilled within her. Although admittedly: “I would have been really angry to anyone who said this to me at the time!”
That confidence was something Onwurah drew on in 2010, when she stood for parliament. “I did not feel ready, I was scared. But I knew it was either now or never,” she says. It’s a mantra that Onwurah now tries to live by: “Don’t want until you are ready. And don’t wait until the timing is perfect because that may never happen. Go when any opportunity arises.”
And for those who considering a career in politics today, Onwurah says not to be deterred by perceptions of who is qualified to become an elected representative.“You may think that you are not qualified,” she says. “But you are almost undoubtedly, more qualified - with the greatest respect to my parliamentary colleagues - than many of those who are currently sitting in the house.”
In fact, before going through the application process she readily admits she didn’t know what she was undertaking - “I half expected that if you’re going to become an MP, some hand would come down from the sky and pick you out!”
“You do need to have luck, but they say the harder you work and the more you do, the more luck you have..”
“What I came to realise, with my confidence growing, is that you have to put yourself forward,” although this lesson is something she freely professes to anyone who will listen, she still struggles with it herself. “Despite living all over the world, the biggest culture shock of my life was coming into Parliament.”
Onwurah encourages young people to look for mentors. (When I call the MP’s office to speak to her, the employee who answers the phone is learning how to use the switchboard, and – while she thinks she has put me on hold – I hear the MP calmly teaching her how to transfer the call.)
She says: “Any woman who isn’t ready to help other women, especially to become politicians, should take a long hard look at themselves.”