Siobhan Benita is the independent female candidate in this year’s race to win the London mayoral election on May 3rd. Here she welcomes PHOENIX’s Lily Niu into her New Malden home, and explains why there’s more to women in politics than Maggie Thatcher.
“Hello,” Siobhan Benita smiles brightly as she opens the door. She is pretty and slender, wearing her warm brown hair down. Dressed in a bright orange pussy bow blouse from Primark, a short black pleated skirt, and Banana Republic peep toe heels, it’s apparent at first glance that Benita has inherently feminine taste. Following her inside, the door to the kitchen is wide open and a cleaning lady is mopping the floor. “Is this ok for me to walk on?” Benita asks her before handing over a glass of water. Retiring to the spacious timber floored sitting room, a beautiful and well kept garden can be spotted through stately French doors.
Happily married with two daughters, part of Benita’s motivations for becoming a mayoral candidate is so she can inspire her daughters. “I don’t want them to feel like women don’t have an equal say in shaping policy and public life,” she explains. “I find myself telling them ‘You’ve got to have really high aspirations’, ‘Set your sights as high as possible’, and ‘Don’t think there’s anything you can’t do’ but then I look around and think, well actually, they’re not seeing that in the world around them”.
Having created women’s networks and worked to improve gender equality in the civil service in her previous job, women’s roles in the workplace and in society are important to Benita. However, her being a woman is not how she wants her campaign to be defined. “I wouldn’t want people to think I’m saying ‘Vote for me because I’m a woman’,” she says. “I want them to think I’m a credible candidate and because I’m a woman, there will be some issues that I’m focussing on which maybe the other candidates aren’t that are really important”. As would-be mayor, one of Benita’s proposed policies include freezing transport fares and bringing in season tickets that favour part-time workers and those who require more flexibility. She also wants to revamp accessibility to good primary education for families.
With politics still being very much a man’s world and the UK’s most famous female politician being the boxy and aggressive Margaret Thatcher (who famously changed her appearance and even lowered her voice to appear more masculine), Benita thinks it’s time women stopped apologising for being women. When first starting work in the civil service, the few women who were in senior positions weren’t at all inspiring to her. “They were quite masculine. None of them looked around and helped other women coming up behind them,” she recalls. “Their attitudes were a bit like Thatcher’s. She made a point of saying ‘I got here on my own so why should I help anybody else?’”. For Benita, that was the wrong way to go about it. Luckily nowadays, she thinks women who are breaking through glass ceilings in organisations are doing it in quite a feminine way. “I don’t believe that you should alter yourself to fit into a male world,” she says. “It’s the opposite; you should bring your great diversity and your great femininity to the world”.
Admitting that she doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on designer pieces, Benita is a fan of the high street and enjoys shopping at stores like Marks and Spencer and H&M. “I did a photo shoot for a magazine recently; I won’t say which one,” she laughs. “They brought a whole load of clothes with them. I wouldn’t have chosen any of them myself and I think what they did was very stereotyped; a woman running for public office must look suited and booted. I thought, ‘I’m forty, I don’t have to dress quite a frumpy as this’”.
On whether it may be daunting that people may expect such airs of authority and responsibility to reflect in her dress, Benita explains that she believes dressing in an uptight way is not going to help her reach out to those who don’t normally vote. “Dressing uptightly is going to perpetuate this image that people in these positions are all exactly the same,” she says. “I’m hoping that just by being me, some people out there who maybe didn’t necessarily vote before will go, ‘You know what? She looks a bit like me, maybe I’ll listen to what she says’. It’s that kind of connection – it’s a bit more human. It’s breaking down some of those barriers maybe and just being a bit more honest about what you’re like. Hopefully people will respond to that”.