Men in suits walk past us on their way from the Midland Hotel to the entrance to the Manchester Central Convention Centre. It's the first day of the Northern Powerhouse Conference, 2017.
The Northern Powerhouse was former UK Chancellor George Osborne’s big idea for a boost for the north of England’s economy. He might be gone, but his powerhouse lives on.
But the week before the conference, organizers sent out a press release highlighting the main speakers: all 15 were men. In fact, out of a total of 98 speakers, only 13 were women.
Flash forward to the day of the conference and I’m part of a group of laughing women dressed in hard hats, hi-vis jackets and business suits, holding placards saying “Lass War”. We hand out leaflets and chat and are pleasantly surprised at how many people tell us they’re shocked at the lack of women speakers.
Women in high heels stop and tell us how hard things are in their respective industries. Whether its construction, property or finance, they say they have to be twice as good as the men, that they have to really push to get themselves noticed.
"More people, less shiny buildings"
“At least there won’t be too much of a queue for the bathroom,” I call out after one. We speak to women from local councils who make up some of the few female panellists. “I’m going to talk about people not shiny buildings,” says another. “There’s too much emphasis on shiny buildings.”
People above corporations will be a key theme of the “People’s Powerhouse Conference” which will take place in Doncaster in May, organised by some of the influential female council leaders who were missed off the guest list.
At lunchtime there is a sudden flurry of photographers and TV crews around us. They ask us to come nearer the main entrance, right under the big conference sign. We step into our now practiced man-poses. Smug faces, shaking hands importantly, pointing at a big A2 sheet of paper that one of the protestors brought this morning. They’ve drawn a map of the north of England and given towns male names: “DENby Dale, LiverPAUL, KENdal”.
Striking a chord
Some delegates come out and have their photos taken with us in the man poses. One says his daughter will be really impressed with him and gets on his phone to tweet it to her. Another lets us take a photo of his bright red conference bag. “I’m part of the biggest commercial conversation in a generation,” it says in big white letters across it.
Others come out and tell us that the conference had started with an apology about the lack of women and pledges to do better next year with no all-male panels. “They said that last year though didn’t they?” says first-time protestor Sharon.
A journalist says that there seem to be some last minute substitutions of speakers and suggests the conference might now claim more than 13 women. She also says that nearly every panel has made some reference to the lack of women.
We’ve enjoyed the theatricality of dressing up, the feeling of fun and camaraderie. But Lass War is clearly striking a chord, based on not taking ourselves too seriously, which is, dare I say it, a very Northern trait.
Focusing on the future
The UK has the biggest economic gap between the regions and the capital of any country in Europe. Londoners have six times more spent on transport and twice as much on the arts per head as Northerners. This can and must be addressed by the public and private sector working together.
But we also have to ensure that marginalized voices are recognized. In the UK, northern accents are still stigmatized. “Flat caps and whippets” stereotypes still pervade national media coverage. The North needs a new vision which celebrates a future rather than fixes a caricature of the past.
Joined by women from the Women’s Equality Party which is fielding a mayoral candidate in Liverpool, and Diva Manc which is campaigning for better representation of women in business in Manchester, our crew of women who responded to the last minute call for a protest are at the forefront of declaring “lass war” on sexist stereotypes and pointing to some alternative sources of northern power.