Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and currently undertakes the role of Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). BHM Magazine recently sat down with her to discuss her experiences as an MP, her insights into AI, and the importance of voice. With a background spanning 20 years in the tech sector before her entry into Parliament, Chi considers herself a “tech evangelist.” Passionate about the potential of technology to improve lives, she has always advocated for its benefits in her role as an MP. However, she is acutely aware of the disparities in the tech industry. Only 4% of tech workers are from black, Asian, or minority ethnic backgrounds, and a mere 3% of females consider a career in tech as their first choice. Chi firmly believes that for science and technology to truly benefit everyone, it must be representative of the entirety of society.
How can black female MPs of the future navigate Parliament?
As an MP, I often say that Parliament is the most diverse working environment I’ve ever been in. That surprises people – until I say I worked as an engineer for two decades before! As an engineer, I was almost always the only black woman in the room. Those who aren’t in a minority underestimate just how tiring, disabling and disempowering it can be, to be “the only one” – the person of colour, the only woman, the only working-class person in the room. It is really important to recognise that no matter how many people are in the room, your voice and your views count and are important. So much that concerns people’s lives in this country happens in politics, making it vital that we all have a say. As they sing in Hamilton, you have to be in ‘The Room Where It Happens’. When I decided to stand for election some people questioned whether Newcastle was ready for a black MP or whether I was really ‘from Newcastle’ but I had the support and solidarity of so many in the Labour movement to overcome those prejudices. So my message to future black female MPs is that yes racism exists, it matters and it means that there are more and different barriers facing future black women MPs but you’re not alone. The Bernie Grant Award, the Jo Cox programme, and the Labour Women’s Network, exists to help and support other black women get into politics. Networks really matter!
As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Diversity & Inclusion in STEM – what progress is being made to encourage more black women to get involved in STEM? Why is it important?
Now, I consider myself to be a “tech evangelist”, having worked in the tech sector for 20 years before coming into Parliament. As an MP, I have sought to champion technology and how it can make all of our lives better. But unfortunately, the sector remains the preserve of a narrow demographic. Just 4% of tech workers are black, Asian or minority ethnic. And just 3% of females say that a career in tech is their first choice. Ever since I entered Parliament, I have worked to ensure that science and technology must be representative of all of society if it is to work for all of society.
Diversity is not a nice-to-have tick box. It is an economic necessity. Without it, innovation is stifled, and valuable talent is excluded from the workforce. Think about the technology we could have had – we could be enjoying now – if STEM represented humanity instead of a narrow subsection of it.
I chair the APPG for Diversity and Inclusion in STEM, which works to identify the reasons for the lack of diversity and inclusion in STEM and ways in which to address it. Diversity and inclusion need to be at the heart of our STEM education, employment practices, policy development and digital economy if we are to thrive. One of the reasons for the gender pay gap is that STEM jobs pay better! They are also projected to be created at twice the rate of other jobs over the next five years. It is essential that they are open to everyone, and benefit from the talents of everyone. Addressing the current inequity in STEM now, will pay dividends in the future, as the next generation go on to plug the current STEM skills gap, ensuring the UK continues to be a world leader in scientific and technological innovation.
Representation matters – because everyone deserves these opportunities, and because the people who design our world should understand the full range of our experiences, and needs of us all. AI is a big topic right now. There are many examples of problems with the training data for algorithms on which much AI is based, from the facial recognition algorithm that identified black people as gorillas because only white people had been used to train it, to those with ethnic minority names failing to be picked up by recruitment algorithms recommending CVs to employers, or social media posts by non-white users being promoted to the feeds of abusers and racists. Unless technology is diverse by design, it will be unequal by outcome.
In light of Black History Month, could you share your thoughts on the importance of this celebration and how it resonates with your own history and experiences?
Let me start by saying why Black History Month matters so much to me personally. I grew up in Newcastle in the ’70s. I went to fantastic local schools, where I learned the history of our great region, and I was inspired by local heroes such as Stephenson and Parsons to become an engineer, but I learned nothing of black history. I would have been hard put to name a dozen famous black people outside music or sports. My knowledge of black achievement was limited to those two sectors and a few walk-on parts in the great histories of nations, generally as hapless victims or stereotypical villains.
That is why Black History Month matters. Black history is British history and I want black history taught in our schools so that young children of every ethnicity can learn about British history in its entirety. There is justice in telling the stories of those whom history has overlooked; there is also power in sharing the diversity of achievement that is our history. My own achievement of being Newcastle’s first black MP is put into context; I am not an outlier, but I stand on the shoulders of the many who go before me in our shared past.
The theme of ‘Saluting our Sisters’ is important because the contribution of black people and the contribution of women has been too often overlooked but when it comes to black women, it is doubly hidden. So yes, it is time to salute our sisters and I would like to salute each and every woman of colour who has worked to change people’s lives for the better.