Sheik Zayed lecture theatre

Above the Parapet

Women in Public Life 

Above the Parapet Above the Parapet

About Above the Parapet

There is persistent public concern with the skewed profile of figures in public life. The evidence shows with considerable consistency, over time and place, that women are under-represented in public life.

Anecdotal accounts of women who have succeeded in public life are often troubling in terms of the obstacles faced in the journey, difficulties in getting heard and the price that has been paid by individuals for raising their heads above the parapet. What remains little explored is an understanding of the journeys taken by women in high profile public life.

Through a combination of visiting fellows and interviews, the IPA will capture the experiences of high profile women who have shaped public life through exploring answers to questions on their way into those positions, hurdles they overcame or withstood and how the lessons learned from these experiences benefit women who follow. It is expected that many other experiences will be captured though website interaction and public events.

The IPA became the repository of narratives which illuminate the public lives of women beyond quantitative measures of participation; rather we gathered rich, personal reflections.

In the first phase we focused primarily on sectors where having a voice is associated with having authority per se or having influence in public life – politics, diplomacy and the academy. Women leaders in civil society were also be invited to explore their search for a credible public voice.

This programme is at its core international in scope, in recognition both of the commonality of women’s accounts of challenges but also in order that a variety of contextual circumstances can be examined. Research participants joined us and participated from many different countries.

Methods and emerging findings

The Above the Parapet research was carried out through interviews with high profile women drawn from four sectors of focus: politics, academia, diplomacy and civil society. The project sought to gather qualitative data and rich insights into women’s journeys into public life.

We were able to talk to more than 80 fascinating women across the four sectors, giving us rich material from which to learn. Some of the data was captured in our Above the Parapet Facewall, which displays all interviewees who have given their consent alongside key quotes from their interview regarding challenges, dynamics that enabled progress, significant aspects of their journey and lessons to share with the women that follow.

Visit the Facewall


Above the Parapet provided a flexible space for women who hold (or have held) positions at the highest levels of public life within our four fields of research: politics, diplomacy, academia and civil society. Above the Parapet Visiting Senior Fellows joined us at the Institute of Public Affairs to reflect, debate and capture:

  • their journeys
  • their experiences
  • their impacts
  • what they want to tell the women who follow and the men who want to make change
  • how institutional arrangements impeded or enabled their contributions to public life.

During their time at the LSE, Above the Parapet Visiting Senior Fellows underwent in-depth interviews regarding their journey into public life, documented their own reflections, and gave lectures and seminars on their experiences within public life.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our Visiting Senior Fellows for their valuable time here at the LSE, which allowed us to gather rich and illuminating data for our research.

Joyce Banda

H.E. Joyce Banda

Former President of Malawi

Dr Joyce Banda was Malawi's first female President (2012-2014) and the second woman to lead an African country. Before assuming the position of President, she served as the Vice President of the Republic (2009-2012), as Minister of Foreign Affairs (2006-2009) and as Minister of Gender, Child Welfare and Community Services (2004-2006). Her vision is to eradicate poverty through economic growth and wealth creation.

Roza Otunbaeva

H.E. Roza Otunbayeva

Former President of Kyrgyzstan

Roza Otunbayeva is a Kyrgyz diplomat and politician who went on to head the government during its transition from an authoritarian regime to a parliamentary democracy. In June 2010, she was elected President of the Kyrgyz Republic and served in that post until successfully facilitating the first peaceful transfer of state power in Central Asia in December 2011.

Sylvia Tamale

Prof Sylvia Tamale

Professor of Law and Jurisprudence at Makerere University, Uganda

Professor Sylvia Tamale is a Ugandan feminist scholar. She was the first woman to serve as dean of the Faculty of Law at Makerere University (2004-2008). By combining academia with activism, Prof. Tamale adopts a critical approach to the law that aims at enhancing students’ transformative personal growth and action. Among her groundbreaking publications are: When Hens Begin to Crow: Gender and Parliamentary Politics in Uganda (Westview Press 1999) and African Sexualities: A Reader (Pambazuka Press, 2011). Prof. Tamale serves on several international boards and has been a visiting professor in several academic institutions globally. She has won several awards for defending the human rights of marginalized groups such as women, sex workers, homosexuals and refugees.

Julia Gillard

H.E. Julia Gillard

Former Prime Minister of Australia

Julia Gillard was sworn in as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia on 24 June 2010 and served in that office until June 2013. Previously, following the Australian Labor Party's victory at the 2007 Federal Election, Ms Gillard served as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and Social Inclusion.

Ruth Simmons

 Prof Ruth Simmons

18th President of Brown University

Ruth J. Simmons was sworn in as the 18th president of Brown University on July 3, 2001 and concluded her term as president on June 30, 2012. Professor Simmons was elected as Brown's first female president and she is the first black president of an Ivy League institution. She had been president of Smith College from 1995 until the time of her appointment at Brown.

The report

Read the Above the Parapet report, launched in April 2017.

Event podcasts

A number of public events were held during the course of the Above the Parapet project:

Professor Ruth Simmons, June 2015

Listen to the podcast

H.E. Julia Gillard, June 2015

Listen to the podcast or watch online

Professor Sylvia Tamale, June 2015

Read the speech online

Dr Purna Sen, May 2015

Listen to the podcast or watch online

H.E. Roza Otunbayeva, March 2015

Listen to the podcast or watch online

Lord Robin Renwick, December 2014

Listen to the podcast

Professor Susan J Carroll, November 2014

Listen to the podcast

Dr Joyce Banda, October 2014

Listen to the podcast or watch online

Advisory group

Above the Parapet had a strong advisory group which provided advice for the project as it developed and sought to maximise learning and sharing of knowledge. Members were drawn from the sectors into which research was conducted, bringing relevant experience to bear in their support given to the project. The project learned from women’s experiences across political contexts.

Bim Adewunmi

Writer and Editor

Bim Adewunmi is a writer and editor with specialisms in popular culture, women and race. She writes regularly for national and international media such as: the Guardianthe New StatesmanIndependent magazineGrazia and Mslexia among others. She also contributes to BBC Radio 4 programmes including Front RowWoman’s HourBroadcasting House and Saturday Review. Bim is currently acting women's editor of the Guardian

Prof the Baroness Haleh Afshar

Professor of Politics & Women's Studies at the University of York
Crossbench Peer

Haleh Afshar OBE is Professor Emeritus at the University of York and serves as a Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords. In 2005 she was awarded an OBE for services to equal opportunities. For seven years she served as Deputy Chair of the British Council's Gender and Development Task Force. She has also served with the Advisory Group of the Cabinet Offices Women's Unit to work on raising gender awareness amongst civil servants who adjudicate on applications for asylum from women. In 2008 she was appointed to serve as a Commissioner on Women's National Commission. She has written two and edited/co-edited 13 books on questions relating to women and development.

Kat Banyard

Director, UK Feminista

Kat Banyard is author of The Equality Illusion: The Truth About Women and Men Today. In 2014 her book was dramatised in the play Blurred Lines, premiering at the National Theatre. Kat is also founder of UK Feminista - an organisation supporting grassroots feminist activism. In 2010 Kat was named by the Guardian as "the most influential young feminist in the country" and in 2011 was named one of the Observer's 50 contemporary innovators, described as “Game-changers whose vision is transforming the world around us”. Kat was previously Campaigns Officer at the Fawcett Society and Women’s Development Worker at the Northern Refugee Centre.

Margot James MP

Conservative Member of Parliament for Stourbridge

Margot James was elected as the Conservative MP for Stourbridge in 2010, and is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Leader of the House of Commons, William Hague. She chairs the All Party Group on Trade and Investment. Margot served as a non-executive board director of Parkside NHS Trust and is currently a governor of Redhill School and the LSE. Between 2006 and 2010, she served as Vice Chair of the Conservative Party for women. Margot spent ten years as a trustee of Abantu, an African women's charity, during which time she trained women from more than forty different African countries in communications and lobbying skills.

Tessa Jowell MP

Labour Member of Parliament for Dulwich and Norwood

Tessa Jowell was Member of Parliament for Dulwich and West Norwood from1992 until 2015, after a successful career as a Health Policy Analyst and Development Director. She was a minister for the duration of the 1997-2010 Labour Government including eight years in the cabinets of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. As Public Health Minister Tessa is credited with the creation and design of SureStart, the early years nurture programme and, as Employment Minister, she helped to shape the New Deal employment programme. In 2001 Tessa was appointed to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport where she was the driving force behind the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and was a Member of the Olympic Board for the entire duration of the project. Tessa was created a Dame in 2012 for political and charitable services.

Prof Francesca Klug

Professorial Research Fellow, LSE

Professor Francesca Klug OBE is a Professorial Research Fellow at the LSE. She is Director of the Human Rights Futures Project which seeks to explore the direction of human rights discourse. Francesca was previously a Senior Research Fellow at King's College Law School where she assisted the government in devising the model for incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law reflected in the Human Rights Act. Francesca is a trustee of the British Institute of Human Rights, an Academic Expert at Doughty Street Chambers and an Editorial Board member of the journal Political Quarterly. She is writing a book on the ethics of universal human rights in the context of the current debate in the UK on the future of the Human Rights Act.

Marai Larasi

Executive Director, Imkaan

Co-chair of the End Violence Against Women Coalition

Marai Larasi MBE is the Executive Director of leading UK-based black feminist organisation Imkaan which is dedicated to ending violence against black, minority ethnic (BME) and refugee women and girls. She is also Co-Chair of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, the UK’s largest coalition of organisations working to eradicate violence against women and girls. She was number 80 in the 2013 World Pride Power List of the most influential LGBT people in the worlds of business, politics, arts and entertainment. Marai has worked with women's groups on leadership development, coaching, mentoring, training and facilitation.

Marie-Pierre Lloyd

Seychelles Ambassador to the UK

Marie-Pierre Lloyd became the Seychelles High Commissioner to the UK in 2012. She entered Seychelles’ public service in 1976, the year of Seychelles' Independence. From her first post as Social Development Officer in the Ministry of Education and Social Development (1976-78), she moved into other senior policy-making positions and in 2006 she became the Minister for Employment and Social Affairs. A year later she was appointed Minister for Health and Social Development and in 2010, became the first Seychelles’ Roving Ambassador for Women and Children’s Issues, during which time she opened a community centre for women and others who wanted a "second chance".

Sue Marsh


Sue Marsh is a disability campaigner who raises awareness of hidden disabilities and long-term illness. She writes a popular and influential blog which shares information, analysis and opinion on welfare, illness, disability and political thought. She set up a grassroots team that researched and wrote a seminal report analysing proposals for the Welfare Reform Bill 2011 contributing to changes in the House of Lords. She is a political strategist that regularly contributes to and speaks on national media.

Baroness Shirley Williams

Liberal Democrat Peer

Shirley Williams, Co-Founder of the Social Democratic Party and its first President (1982-88), served as Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords from 2001 until retiring from that position in 2004. She started her career as a journalist and was General Secretary of the Fabian Society until becoming Labour MP for Hitchin in 1964. She served in the Cabinet (1974-79) including as Secretary of State for Education and Science. Shirley lost the seat in 1979 but, after co-founding the Social Democratic Party in 1981, was its first elected MP in the same year. She became Baroness Williams of Crosby in 1993 and was the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Foreign Affairs in the Lords (1998-2001). She was on the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Council for the Fourth World Women's Conference.

Project team

Purna Sen

Former Deputy Director of the Institute of Public Affairs

Dr Purna Sen, former Deputy Director of the IPA, led Above the Parapet. Her work has focused on violence against women, culture and human rights, trafficking, sexuality and sexual control, human rights developments, civil society organising against violence, social development issues and race equality. Purna is a board member of the Kaleidoscope Trust (an LGBT rights charity), RISE (a domestic abuse charity) and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. She served as Head of Human Rights for the Commonwealth Secretariat and as Director for the Asia-Pacific Programme at Amnesty International.

Jade Cochran

Researcher and Project Adviser

Jade Cochran was Researcher and Project Adviser for Above the Parapet. Prior to working at the LSE, Jade worked for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Central Asia and East Africa. She also worked as a Human Rights Officer for the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. Jade has an LLM in International Human Rights Law from the University of Essex.

Darja Schildknecht

Project Officer

Darja Schildknecht was the Project Officer for Above the Parapet. She recently finished her MSc in Development Studies at LSE. Darja previously worked for the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein to the United Nations in New York as well as for the NGO World Vision Switzerland.