Public Sector Focus

21.04.17

The Peoples Powerhouse: Breaking the mould

Source: PSE Apr/May 17

Despite its many brilliant female leaders, the Northern Powerhouse often forgets to shout about the women working tirelessly to transform the region. But this is all about to change, Donna Hall, chief executive of Wigan Council, tells PSE’s Luana Salles.

According to the Fawcett Society, only 12% of council leaders and 13% of directly-elected mayors were women in 2013. And according to Local Government Information Unit data, women make up just 21% of council leaders in the Northern Powerhouse, with only one of the seven chairs of established and proposed combined authorities in the region being female. Of the 134 senior leadership roles in the Northern Powerhouse, 72% of these are occupied by men. 

Fortunately, this dearth of women’s voices at the top does not always trickle down into other layers of local government: Manchester City Council, for example, has achieved equal representation of both sexes, and several other authorities, such as North Tyneside, Leeds and Hull are almost there. 

But with decision-making powers so intensely concentrated at the hands of men, it is more important than ever to shine a spotlight on the female leaders in the sector. Award ceremonies like Northern Power Women go some way towards accomplishing that. But other, more nationally recognised events may not be doing enough in this arena. 

One of these female leaders, Donna Hall, chief executive of Wigan Council, has recognised this for years – but finally decided that enough was enough. Teaming up with fellow local government colleague Jo Miller, CEO of Doncaster Council and president of Solace, Hall set out to expose the systemic sexism that permeates the Northern Powerhouse – often to the point where the project is dismissed as an old boys’ club. 

Northern Powerhouse Conference 

The catalyst for this backlash was this year’s UK Northern Powerhouse International Conference. Held at Manchester Central on 21-22 February, the major exhibition, which brought together private and public sector leaders alike, was slammed for its lack of female representation at all levels. Despite costing over £400 to attend and network with what event organisers described as “key players, potential business partners and stakeholders”, just 13 of the 98 listed speakers were women. Several panel sessions featured no women whatsoever. 

As people began airing their discontent online – with Leigh MP Andy Burnham calling it “embarrassing”, Sunderland Central MP Julie Ward branding the line-up “appalling” and many even planning to picket the conference – event organiser Keith Griffiths decided to issue a formal apology as the first matter of business. Before Lord Kerslake took to the stage, Griffiths promised delegates in the auditorium that the conference was keen to address its gender imbalance in future instalments in order to harness the “ideas, drive and insight” of women “for the good of everyone”. 

But apologies can only do so much to fix a deep-seated problem. To bring women to the limelight more effectively, Hall and Miller decided to take affirmative action. “This has been going on for years – it really has,” Hall told PSE. 

“We were sick, fed up and tired of all-male panels for events to do with the Northern Powerhouse – mainly privately organised conferences that are making a lot of money out of it. And they’re approaching it in a very macho way, talking about transport and property and buildings and tower blocks and railways and things like that – not about people. 

“Some of the barriers we face to full participation in closing the gender pay gap are around childcare, education, mental health and skills – and they just completely ignored all of it. It’s fuelled by machismo and it’s not rooted in either a commercial awareness of the whole population of the north, or an inclusive awareness of the whole population. If you discriminate against women, you discriminate against everyone – you hold the whole of the north back.” 

It was from an effort to change that focus and talk about inclusive growth – about health and social care, homelessness, a place-based approach to ensuring residents benefit from the new jobs and opportunities emerging in the north – that the Peoples Powerhouse Conference was born.

Logo edit

 Showcasing brilliant women 

Taking place on 9 May at Doncaster Rovers Football Ground from 10am to 4pm, the conference has been described as a “demonstration of diversity and inclusivity of all the people and organisations who will deliver growth in the north”. 

As PSE went to press, several speakers were still awaiting announcement, but some major names had already been confirmed – and this time, nobody forgot to invite the women: Dame Louise Casey from the Casey Review; DCLG permanent secretary Melanie Dawes; Manchester City Council CEO Joanne Roney; and HS2 commercial director Beth West, amongst others. 

“We have to break the stereotype, really,” Hall told us. “It’s so important, especially in the north, because you have this culture of ‘only men can do well’. Not just in the north, but I think it’s more prevalent in certain parts of it, so we have to work even harder to tackle it. 

“But it’s not just local government or the north, either – it’s international. Christine Lagarde, CEO of the International Monetary Fund, said it’s an ‘insidious conspiracy’ the way women are treated in society. 

“We have so many brilliant leaders in the north who are doing such good work – we have to showcase that to give other, younger women the confidence that they can be leaders, that they can shape the future of the north.” 

Starting from the bottom 

Interim Greater Manchester mayor Tony Lloyd, she argued, has made sure that the region has as many women in leadership or deputy leadership roles as possible, as well as guaranteeing that good female leaders are being coached and mentored in order to take over when men move on. 

“For me, though, it goes right back to aspirations in school,” added Hall. “My father was a really strong trade unionist and was passionate about women doing well, but I was really lucky to have that. In a lot of families, despite their academic attainments, women are pushed down into more menial roles. It’s about parenting, about making sure our young girls get that encouragement and support, and get that all the way through school.” 

This and many other prevalent northern issues will be discussed at the upcoming conference. According to the Guardian’s Helen Pidd, who will chair a few of the event’s sessions, corporate sponsors will be asked to subsidise tickets for delegates who can’t afford to travel otherwise, and the event will largely focus on how to boost the life chances of everyone in the region through economic growth. 

“We have had so many people wanting to come, I think we could sell it out several times over,” joked Hall. “It’ll be men as well as women – it’s also about men who support gender diversity and inclusive growth.”

For more information

To attend The Peoples Powerhouse Conference, visit:

W: www.transform-lives.org/events

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