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I'm tired of being the only woman in the room - grab your hard hat, there's no excuse 

Donald Trump, surrounded by men, signing a bill on women's reproductive rights
Donald Trump, surrounded by men, signing a bill on women's reproductive rights Credit: SAUL LOEB 

Theresa May really knows how to stage a hard hat protest, as she showed last year when she poked fun at the former chancellor George Osborne by donning his trademark hi-vis jacket and helmet to accept an award.

So I’m secretly hoping she’ll turn up at next week’s “Lass War” demonstration.

Women are being invited to wear the hard-hats so beloved of politicians visiting construction sites to protest at the preponderance of men speaking at next week’s Northern Powerhouse conference in Manchester. All 16 main speakers advertised in the press release were male. Only 13 out of 98 speakers, over the two days, are women.

The rally is the brainchild of the comedian and poet Kate Fox, who has said it looks “sexist and outdated” – a reminder of that now notorious photograph of 11 men signing the first devolution agreement with Osborne, who pioneered the so-called Northern Powerhouse to boost economic growth in the north of England.

Apparently the excuse then was that the region’s only female leader was on holiday.

George Osborne presents Theresa May with the Politician of the year award in 2016 Credit: Alan Davidson/SilverHub 

It’s great this latest gender gaffe is getting the opprobrium it deserves. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been invited to chair conferences where I am the only woman on the platform. This week alone, I’ve been asked to chair an industry event where I would be the lone female speaking, and to attend a City lunch where all the other guests are blokes.

All too often, women simply don’t make it to sufficiently senior positions to be invited. That’s a problem. The Fawcett Society found that although 40 per cent of council leaders in the Northern Powerhouse were female, only 28 per cent occupied top leadership roles. That’s a problem replicated in business across the UK.

Worse still, women who have made it to the top, don’t always seem to get picked. Donna Hall, chief executive of Wigan Council, wasn’t invited to take part in the Manchester conference, despite being named the north of England’s most transformational leader at the Northern Power Women awards.

How many of us have turned down events, in the – often mistaken – belief that the next bloke might be better qualified?

But women of the world, let’s be honest: do we sometimes have ourselves to blame?

How many of us have turned down events, in the – often mistaken – belief that the next bloke might be better qualified? I know from bitter experience how hard it is to get perfectly brilliant women to appear on my Channel 4 news show.

Sometimes this is because, as the Labour MP Diane Abbott blogged powerfully this week, a woman tends to get more abuse for sticking her neck out. But sometimes it’s because women don’t have the confidence or experience they should when it comes to public speaking. 

So to fix the problem, women need to get promoted, get invited, and then say yes, yes and yes again. And finally, men, you need to join the protest too. Many’s the time the chaps in charge don’t take note of the problem right under their nose.

Cathy Newman is often the only woman speaking at an all male conference Credit: Channel 4

What was particularly galling about the Northern Powerhouse event was that none of the organisers seem to have clocked the men-only press release, until the Guardian journalist Helen Pidd rightly made a fuss about it on Twitter. They could have name-checked a couple of senior women who were taking part – Leeds city council leader Judith Blake, or the children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield. The fact that they didn’t, suggests looking like a boys’ club simply didn’t strike them as an issue.

Likewise, none of the men running the White House betrayed a moment’s doubt about issuing a photograph of a coterie of gents signing away women’s abortion rights in the developing world.

Nor did the blokes by and large running Apple realise – until a public outcry - what an omission it was that their Healthkit didn’t allow women to track their periods.

So credit to Labour’s Manchester mayoral candidate Andy Burnham, who tweeted the conference press release saying “Good god, how embarrassing is this? Will be working with #DivaManc to change it.”

All hail Graham Robb, too, the chair of the North East Institute of Directors, who’d tweeted that he’d “insisted” on sharing his speaking slot with Natalie Sykes, the regional director for Yorkshire.

I remember once being asked to give an after-dinner speech at a business event in the North East.

The organiser (a woman) gave me a very clear brief: to shake the invitees out of their post-prandial torpor with a clarion call to improve gender equality in the region. I did as requested. The organiser was delighted, the attendees (the vast majority men) listened in stony silence.

That indifference has got to stop. Let’s hope the Lass War gets the men on side, too.

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