“Don’t settle on structures that don’t work – break them”: Jess Phillips MP advises women to keep aiming for the top

“Don’t settle on structures that don’t work – break them. Keep on going until there’s nowhere else to go – the top,” advises Jess Phillips MP, who recently spoke to WeAreTheCity about being a woman in British politics.

Philips went to Leeds University, to study economics and social history. She also later went on to study a postgraduate diploma in Public Sector Management at the University of Birmingham.

“My career was happenstance. My family were political and were involved in all forms of activism,” she explained and joked: “One day I would like a quiet life where I own a haberdashery. My mum raised me to be a rebel, but sometimes I just want to count buttons.”

Credit: jessphillips.net

She had her first child at 22 and started working for Women’s Aid in 2010, when her second child was eight months old.

Taking a post as a business development manager at the domestic sexual abuse charity, she was responsible for refuges of sexual abuse in Sandwell in the West Midlands.

She said: “I was off work with my first child and started volunteering with female asylum seekers and young offenders. I liked working with people and volunteering with groups.

“I took a salary cut and went to work for Women’s Aid. My willingness to take a risk really paid off.”

Becoming a Member of Parliament

In 2012 she was asked if she would consider being a local councilor, which she agreed to. She was selected to contest for Birmingham Yardley the following year. In 2012 she was elected as a Labour councillor for Longbridge ward and was appointed as the victims champion for Birmingham City Council, lobbying police and criminal justice organisations on behalf of victims.

“I decided to stand as a local councilor and won. I took all my experiences into politics. Working at Women’s Aid was life changing.”

She became the Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Birmingham Yardley at the 2015 general election.

“You get to see the direct effect of government policies. You get to see how society is largely skewed towards one gender and how dangerous that is to women.

Jess Phillips (second from left) joins Vanessa Vallely, Maya Wolfe-Robinson, Shona Baijal & Afsana Abedin as a panelist at the WOW Festival 2017

We need to see men taking responsibility as much as much as women fight for their rights. Progress won’t be made until there is a change in culture and a law change, so fathers are entitled to what mums are. Me going to back to work didn’t depend on whether I could lactate, but more the fact that my husband earnt more.”

As an outspoken MP on women’s rights she became chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party in September 2016 and in February this year, Phillips’ first book, Everywoman, One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth, was published by Penguin Books.

She said she is used to online abuse, dealing with continuous online rape threats, however she noted that social media companies need to put measures in place to protect its users.

Philips said: “I have got used to it, however government are now starting to take this seriously. Gone are the days of ignoring abuse. Online companies need to do something about it too.

“There are currently 19 laws in place so far, but they have to be clear and define online legislation just like with any other forms of abuse against women.”

She noted that the likes of Youtube have an algorithm to detect online abuse, hate and bullying and that other social media giants should follow suit.

Women in politics

For women considering a career move into politics, she said: “Find allies early on. It is difficult if you feel like you are doing it on your own. I never have felt alone. If you are the woman that everyone rolls their eyes then that’s no good – you need someone to share the broken record.

“Women don’t always speak up, so if not you need someone to big you up so you don’t come across as bossy.”

However, she advised that you should not always build ‘obvious’ bridges but to make an effort to build relationships with other members of parliament.

“Be sure to make one with an old crusty back bencher too. Don’t be afraid to make enemies too. Don’t be afraid to be bold and to be grossly unpopular.”

“Support for women in parliament is changing. For example, the Speaker of the House of Commons shows incredible support for women in politics – in support of better working hours and not just old men hanging on the walls. There is enough critical mass in parliament now and it is mature enough now for change.”

Future plans

Phillips plans to continue to focus on her work, which she said she never takes for granted.

“I’m a work hard or go home sort of person and I live my life like I only have five years in parliament. I continue to be as out there, as radical, as loud, as bold and I plan to follow on the trajectory that I have started.

“I plan to progress within the structure of my organisation, which is something that all women should be proud to say. To have ambition, to be the best, to be leaders and to not be afraid to say it.”

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