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Leaders urged to boycott all-male panels as local gov women ‘sick and fed up’

Local government leaders and chief executives are being urged to boycott all-male panels in events, such as the upcoming Northern Powerhouse Conference, with Wigan Council boss Donna Hall telling PSE that she and her colleagues are “sick, tired and fed up” of relentless ‘male and pale’ platforms.

In an open letter published by Solace and supported by Hall, Jo Miller, the organisation’s recently elected president and CEO of Doncaster Council, said: “When I was elected as Solace president at our AGM in October, I made it clear as early as my inaugural speech that diversity in our sector would be something I was determined to tackle head-on in terms of entry and access as well as representation at a senior level; who sits at the top table, and who designs content and is heard at conferences and public events.

“I write to ask you to join me in this. Where you see a single gender panel or board, please consider taking a stand – declining your own participation for that reason, or positively suggesting colleagues you know who may have been overlooked. I would also encourage you to ask the politicians you work with to consider this, as well as your organisation’s contractors or business and suppliers.”

This is “absolutely” not about naming and shaming, protest or finger-pointing, added Miller; it’s just “simply true” that we all have a part to play in “making sure a full diversity of voices are heard as we grapple with the big decisions of the day”.

It comes just a couple of days after Miller announced on Twitter her intention to host an “unconference” titled ‘The People’s Powerhouse’ on 9 May, to rival the heavily male-dominated Northern Powerhouse event set to take place this week in Manchester Central.

Despite the many female leaders taking forth the devolution agenda in the north, this week’s conference’s main programme, features an entirely male 16-person keynote panel.

Despite costing over £400 to attend and network with what the event organisers describe as “key players, potential business partners and stakeholders”, just 13 of the 98 listed speakers are women. Several panel sessions feature no women whatsoever.

When the news broke, Andy Burnham, Labour MP for Leigh and candidate for Greater Manchester mayor, tweeted: “Good god, how embarrassing is this?”, later adding that there were “plenty” of female heavyweights in the north – amongst them Hall, who the MP described as “one of the most forward-thinking leaders in the public sector”.

Julie Ward, MP for Sunderland Central, also tweeted that the line-up was “appalling” and “even worse that the organisers don’t understand why women must be involved at every level”.

Weak on female representation

The organisers of the event acknowledged the underrepresentation of women, but said the companies themselves were usually responsible for putting forward who their chosen speakers would be.

But speaking to PSE, Hall argued they had been “very weak” on this issue, and the excuse given was “just not good enough”. Her and Miller are both refusing to attend, with Hall maintaining that women have been clearly an afterthought to the whole ordeal.

“Every time I see an all-male panel, I challenge it,” she told us. “Since this went viral, I have been invited to sit on 10 panels, and I rejected them all, because I said: ‘Women are an afterthought. You’ve just not built it into your line-up’.

“And even from a commercial point of view, it’s stupid. We’re not appealing to women.”

As well as the huge concern of underrepresentation at every level, Hall also told us that one of the main drivers for setting up a rival conference was to move away from the “very macho” themes of this week’s event, which was largely crafted by private companies.

“They are talking about transport, property, buildings, tower blocks and railways – not about people. We wanted to change the focus of it to talk about inclusive growth, to talk about health and social care, to talk about homelessness, to talk about trying to plan a place-based approach to making sure everyone benefits from the new jobs and opportunities that are coming into the Northern Powerhouse,” explained Hall.

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership isn’t like that, really – it’s very much the people latching onto the edges of it, the private organisers of events who are seeing it as a ‘northern + power = men’ – which it doesn’t! It isn’t about men – we have some brilliant female leaders in the north.”

She later added: “Some of the barriers we face to full participation in closing the gender pay gap are around childcare, around education, around mental health, around skills and things like that, and they have just completely ignored all of it. It’s £400 to go to this conference – and they’re not even talking about the big issues!”

Hall’s own event, being taken forward alongside Miller and the Guardian’s Helen Pidd, has quickly taken shape since its genesis earlier this week. There is already a scheduled date – 9 May – and will reportedly be held at Doncaster Rovers FC.

According to Pidd, 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.

“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 confidence that they can be leaders, and that they can shape the future of the north.”

Our full interview with Hall, as well as more details about The People’s Powerhouse, will be featured in the upcoming April/May issue of PSE.

Formal apology

A few days after our interview with Hall, PSE was told that the managing director of the Northern Powerhouse Conference, Keith Griffiths, will read out a formal apology at the start of the event, before Lord Kerslake takes to the stage.

He is expected to outline how the conference will address the issue of gender in future instalments in order to harness the “ideas, drive and insight” of women “for the good of everyone”. This will include a pledge that next year’s event will have no single-gender panels.

“We have already started to work with key women leaders to understand how we make this happen and we are grateful for the support of Donna Hall, chief executive of Wigan Council, Jo Miller, chief executive of Doncaster Council and Simone Roche of the Northern Power Women,” Griffiths will say. “Once again, our apologies.”


Peter Rankin   20/02/2017 at 12:52

Lancashire has several of the best local government Chief Executives in the NW yet they rarely get asked to sit on panels. Its an absolute disgrace. I am attending the NPH conference tomorrow but never again unless they drastically change their policies. Peter Rankin Preston City Council Leader

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