SEX & POWER 2022: Women Leading the Way in Politics with Tracy Brabin

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.

First up in our blog series, Fawcett spoke to Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire and the first woman in the country to be elected a metro mayor.  


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

I was an actor for three decades and a writer, which is something I’d always wanted to do, but because of my background and my Labour values, I used my ‘celebrity’ to support Labour councillors and MPs in elections - I was always driven by my feminist principles. While I was at university, I was attacked by a stranger and that was a turning point for me. It opened me up to feminism and made me question why there was so much violence against women in society.

I was keen to support women politicians and when Jo Cox stood in my hometown, Batley and Spen, I campaigned with her. When she was murdered, I asked her friends what I could do to help and one of them asked if I wanted to be an MP. Suddenly, it felt like that was what I should do. Batley and Spen is my town, I knew Jo, I was always politically active and there were a lot of things I wanted to do for the people I cared about.

We went through a selection process and there was a hideous by-election while everyone was still grieving. I was brand new to parliament and very much had imposter syndrome. About six months in there was a snap general election, which I won with a decent majority.

Moving through parliament, I was the Shadow Early Years Minister, I was then Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Shadow Culture Minister. At one point, and this is an example of how women are treated differently in politics, I was at the despatch box and my dress fell slightly off my shoulder and suddenly there was a rip in the universe from online trolls. My response to that abuse was to put the dress up for auction and I raised £20,000 for Girl Guides, who run a brilliant training programme for young women about body shame.

Throughout that period, I was an advocate for One Yorkshire. When the devolution deal got over the line, I decided that I should stand, or at least throw my hat in the ring. It was daunting and would mean me leaving parliament, so there was risk attached. I had to run an odd campaign because it was all online. I got 60% of the vote and became the first woman metro mayor in the country and I will forever be proud of that. Kim, Jo’s sister, is now the MP in Batley and Spen and it feels like a really positive outcome.

What do you think can be done to attract and retain more women into politics? 

The ability to limit the late-night sittings because the hours are long and not family friendly, but also having maternity and paternity leave. The work that Harriet Harman and others have done over the years has made it a much more family friendly environment.  

We must also address the lack of representation at councillor level. There are no pensions and no paternity or maternity rights as a councillor. They are also poorly paid for the one hundred percent commitment that they give to their community. We need to make being a councillor an attractive role so people can get experience in public life.  

I’ve visited schools that don’t have a school council and they don’t talk about parliament. It’s a responsibility for all our institutions to say, “politics is for you”. If you have gotten other parents together to campaign for a zebra crossing outside your school, you are a leader, and that is politics.  

Can you tell us about your experience as the first woman to be elected as a metro mayor?  

I asked myself what I needed to do to say that my gender didn’t matter and that I would still be a terrific mayor for the people of West Yorkshire. I think more powerful was that I’m from the region, I’m a Yorkshire woman through and through. My identity is very connected to where I grew up and all the characters I ever played as an actor were Yorkshire, feisty women.  

I often say that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. There are so many women across the world that are breaking the glass ceiling. I hope that I will also inspire other women to step up into senior leadership. 

It’s also important that when women get into senior leadership positions that they don’t surround themselves with white men. We too have that obligation to be more mindful about who we employ. 

What advice would you give to women considering a career in politics? 

Just go for it and have faith in yourself and your lived experience. I don’t think we have enough people in politics with lived experience. It is a vital political tool that will give you an authentic voice to speak genuinely for the public.  

I think it’s the terms and conditions and the lifestyle that put people off politics. As an MP it’s a split week, you spend half the week in London and half in your constituency and you’ve got to make your childcare work. We know that childcare responsibilities often land on the shoulders of women. That’s why councillors should be paid more and have maternity rights, because how else are we going to attract women into the sector? 

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

Accessible, high-quality childcare would be a game-changer. As the Shadow Early Years Minister, everywhere I went the cost of childcare is stopping women fulfilling their potential.  

Tracy Brabin was elected in 2021, becoming the first female metro mayor since elections began in 2017. This is a step in the right direction, but with only one female metro mayor among nine, this continues to be an area where women’s representation remains extremely poor.

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