To celebrate and spotlight incredible women as part of our 2022 Sex & Power launch, we have spoken to three women who are leading the way in politics, covering their journey to power, the challenges they have faced and their thoughts on how we can improve women's representation across political institutions in the UK.

In this blog, Fawcett spoke to Kaukab Stewart MSP, an SNP politician for Glasgow Kelvin. At the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, she became the first woman of colour elected to Scottish Parliament. 


Kaukab, we’d love to hear about your journey into politics and how you got to be to where you are today:  

I was born in Pakistan, I'm a first-generation immigrant and I moved to the UK when I was around 6 years old - I lived in England at that time and was there until I was around 16.

We were one of the original immigrant families to move into that area, and that was always quite well accepted. During the early to mid-80s, as the political mood of the country changed, I became alert to the connection between Government policy and the direct effect that it has on people and communities.

Unfortunately, my family and I were subject to overt racist abuse and I’m not talking about the low-level racism that we take for granted, well unfortunately that I take for granted, but severe racial abuse. We lost confidence and looked for a fresh start, so decided to move to Glasgow.

I joined secondary school in Glasgow and realised that the expectations of me were quite low, and I surpassed those expectations very quickly, as they were misjudged in the first place. So, when I exceeded them, I was then set unreasonable expectations and people expected me to be a stellar performer. But, when I didn’t meet those expectations, I was a disappointment. As I started looking underneath the skin of that, I couldn’t help but question why. Now, when I look back on my education, the discrimination, and the stereotyping I faced was tangible. I wanted to make sure that I grew up to be a teacher, so that no child who was taught by me was ever going to feel how I did, and I say that about all children.

Politically, I knew that there was a bigger picture and having moved from England to Scotland, I saw the uniqueness of the education system, the legal system, the culture – to name a few. This led me to think, that as an independent nation, Scotland could do a better job for its people.

So, the Scottish National Party became my home. I campaigned for a Scottish Parliament before standing for election in 1999. I knew it wasn’t a winnable seat, as I was standing against Donald Dewar who went onto become the inaugural First Minister of Scotland. I was realistic about that, but it provided me with experience and gave me a profile.

At that time, there was a lot of media interest in me and going back to those expectations, I was in every other newspaper. I made headlines, but with headlines such as: ‘Kaukab, full of Eastern promise,’ applied with a mystical, exotic lens that I look back on now and think, that was reductive.

As I started my political career, I was thrown in at the deep end, there were no role models, there was no-one that I felt I could reach out to, and it was hard. Many people said that I only gained attention because I was a woman of colour and that it was tokenism, I don’t think anyone at that time thought I was there standing for election on merit.

I did stand again in several elections and people always ask me; how come you didn’t give up?

I didn’t give up because nobody else had done it, but I never thought it would be me, the first woman of colour elected to Scottish Parliament, 21 years later.

Can you tell us about your experience and reflections on being elected MSP, as the first woman of colour Scottish Parliament?

It is a responsibility that I take very seriously and there have been no shortcuts that I have taken to get here. I don’t come from a privileged background; I have totally benefited from the free education system and without grants, I wouldn’t have been able to qualify as a teacher. That’s not to say that I don’t have a brilliant network of people who have supported me and still do, but I’ve got to where I am through personal resources and not through the support of women’s networks or organisations.

Most women’s organisations tend to be white and middle-class and of course, that is not who I am. They can often be quite exclusive spaces too, so whilst aspiring white feminists could carve out spaces and make that collective noise, women of colour have been absent from that and still now experience racism and discrimination.

Whilst there has been a real push to achieve gender equality in our political institutions through several different processes and mechanisms, until now, not one of those mechanisms benefitted a woman of colour, in Scottish Parliament. We haven’t yet achieved systemic change - but I hope I am part of this change.

After I got elected, there was a huge interest in me, but they were all human-interest stories. In every interview, I made sure to say: ‘Yes, it’s great that I, a woman of colour, have been elected to Scottish Parliament, but it’s taken far too long and that is not acceptable’. All political parties have failed in terms of equal representation when it comes to candidates from different ethnic backgrounds, disabled people, and LGBTQ people.

I remember, I went back to the school that I was teaching in to say goodbye to the pupils. I’d had a lot of media attention, but the most important was Newsround, which all the pupils had watched.

There was a young lady of colour in my class and she said to me that she never thought it would be possible for this to happen. Even in this country, she didn’t think within politics it was possible for someone like her to be in my position. But what she said to me are the words you always want to hear:

‘You’ve done it, do you think I can do it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I do think you can do it.’

And she said: ‘But it’s taken you 21 years to get here, what makes you think it’s not going to be difficult for me?’

‘Because I am already there and I’m here for you.’

That’s why representation matters. Oftentimes, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

Do you think there are specific measures or actions to provide greater support for women of colour to pursue careers into politics?

Scottish Parliament is the most diverse it’s ever been but there is much more work to do.

Equalities is a cross-party issue and that is something I want to pursue over my five-year term. We will have failed if we go backwards – we must continue to improve representation. That works needs to start now. There is always a flurry of activity around election time, but that is far too late, you need to start the cycle beforehand.

We all need to put pressure on political parties to make that change. From within the SNP, I have done a lot of work trying to address our mechanisms for selection procedures and the Labour Party have also done a lot of good work too.

The Equalities and Human Rights legislation, in my opinion, is a little out of date. It’s a lock and a key – it does need updating with regards to taking corrective action and I say corrective action, not positive action, I would like to change that language.

People can see positive action as tokenism, which is not true. But, if it’s framed as corrective action, we are correcting a wrong – and it is wrong that women of colour do not have adequate representation in politics, so if we all agree on that, we can take steps to make corrective action.

I am a one-woman band on this, but it’s change I would like to make. Perhaps if all political parties looked at improving representation through this lens, change would happen faster.

Crucially, to improve representation, we need more role models, and we need more people to mentor, support and coach people from under-represented groups who to want to thrive.

Throughout my political career, I came across plenty of people who were too busy to provide me with support, so I make sure that I will never be too busy for that. Five years ago, I started mentoring women and in particular women of colour starting out in politics, working alongside them and supporting them to stand. I didn’t have anyone like me to who was there, so I wanted to be that role model.

I do a lot of work quietly and behind the scenes too, to raise up women of colour through political spaces, from endorsing the John Smith BAME Leaders of the Future to taking on a paid intern to work in my office, a young woman of colour, to work with local universities.

What would your one recommendation be to improve women’s representation? 

More visible Black and women of colour in positions of power, but the method to do that is complicated and there is no short answer to that.

My one plea to the people who currently occupy those positions of power currently, is to have a serious look at their succession planning. When there is a natural turnover of staff or when vacancies arise, make much more effort to reach into diverse communities – not once or twice, but continually and consistently to attract more diverse staff.

Organisations are missing out on an amazing range of talent by not harnessing the expertise and experience of diverse candidates and I hope that they can start to see it that way – as a corrective action and not a burden in anyway.


Kaukab Stewart MSP, an SNP politician for Glasgow Kelvin. At the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, she became the first woman of colour elected to Scottish Parliament. This year's Sex & Power charts the progress made in Scottish Parliament, which is close to gender parity.

Fawcett is calling on political parties, Government and business to make change and improve women's representation in our latest Sex & Power 2022 Index here