New Times,
New Thinking.

Parliament is playing catch-up in the world of tech

Can diversity help inform more effective policymaking?

By Chi Onwurah

When people ask me, I like to say I came into Parliament for exactly the same reasons I went into engineering – to make the world work better, for everyone. Until I was elected MP for Newcastle Central in May 2010, the proudest moment in my life was the day I was accepted into Imperial College London to study electrical and electronic engineering in 1984. In the intervening decades I worked as an engineer all over the world, building out networks in France, Germany, Spain, the US, the UK, Nigeria and parts of Asia. Then I moved into the public sector, as head of technology for Ofcom, trying to ensure the UK got a broadband network that worked for everyone. Engineering and politics have more in common than people tend to think: making things work for people using the resources, skills, people and technology available.

I also like to say that Parliament is the most diverse environment I have ever worked in. This surprises people as our representative body is not renowned for its record on representation. But engineering is so bad, it makes politics look good. As an engineer I was so often the only woman in the room, the only person of colour and the only one to have gone to a comprehensive school.

The last election delivered the most diverse Parliament the UK has ever had. It’s the first time it has had more than 200 women in parliament, now making up 32 per cent of all MPs. The number of LGBT MPs increased from 32 in 2015 to 45 in 2017 – an increase of 40 per cent in just two years. We have 51 black, Asian, minority ethnic (BAME) MPs. And Labour has more women MPs than all the other parties put together.

In science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), on the other hand, very little has changed. Currently, only 16 per cent of electrical engineering students are female as opposed to 14 per cent when I was studying, and 9 per cent of professional engineers are women. At the same time, demand for engineers is rising and is set to rise even further. The government estimates we need to recruit 186,000 more engineers into the sector each year until 2024.

So it may seem strange that I am arguing for more engineers – male and female – in Parliament, when they are so needed in industry. Well the reason is quite simple: technology is everywhere, apart from in Parliament.

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When I announced I was going to stand, many friends and colleagues were dismayed. Why was I leaving an important, trusted, responsible profession for something as disreputable as politics? There were many answers to that question, including the desire to represent the people I grew up with in my home city, but in addition, my work in technology had brought me to the conclusion that whilst I could design the best broadband network in the world, it was peoples’ skills and incomes and government infrastructure investment that would determine whether or not it was used. And that’s politics.

And while I did go through a period of mourning for leaving engineering, it is increasingly proving premature, as technology has come to be at the centre of so many decisions I make as a parliamentarian. Software has eaten the world. “Everything is data,” a techpreneur said to me recently. And the recent NAO report on Universal Credit cited a lack of digital skills as a key reason for its failure. I have been moved to tears by the experiences of constituents forced to go to food banks because they could not sign on online. When I visited the United States Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, what I saw was a car show in the middle of a health show, in the middle of a home show, in the middle of a sports show, next to an entertainment show. Tech is an enabling platform for how we do just about everything these days.

Except equality. As we have seen, those who develop technology are not representative of humanity. In my view, that makes it inevitable that the technology which is developed is not humane. And Parliament cannot be in a position to change that if there are not enough members who are as deeply familiar with technology as there are learned lawyers and policy gurus. We need a diversity of backgrounds in Parliament. As in engineering.

Diversity is not “nice to have”, a fluffy add-on when everything else is sorted. It is an economic imperative if we are to compete on the global stage, especially post-Brexit. Diversity is a must-have: we saw how banking “groupthink” fostered the environment that led to the financial crisis. Diversity of backgrounds, disciplines and experiences enables innovation and resilience.

That is why diversity is absolutely central to the industrial strategy Labour is developing and our recently launched Diversity Charter Challenges. We need to be clear: the lack of women in tech is not about girls picking the wrong subjects. This is about an environment which pre-selects boys over girls.

Whether it is gendered children’s toys or a working culture that devalues caring responsibilities, the UK is uniquely good at excluding women from technology. Consider that India – where female literacy rates are much below male ones – does much better than us in attracting girls into computer science.

We need more women in engineering and more engineers in Parliament, so we can deliver the technology that makes the world work better, for everyone.

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