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From the Personal to the Systemic: Woman-led Change in Devolution

(A shortened version of this article first appeared in Local Government Chronicle)

The lack of women's representation and voice, and lack of diversity more broadly, in devolved decision-making has been starkly visible over the last two years - from the ‘pale, male' images of devolution deals being signed in Greater Manchester and Merseyside, to the all male panels (manels!) and meetings that we keep seeing. It is a self-perpetuating problem and unsurprising therefore that our Metro Mayors and their cabinets reflect that image.

DivaManc was one response. Five women gave birth to the idea around my kitchen table last July, and without permission we set out to see how we could help unblock the pipeline, unlock potential and design in greater diversity at every level of devo-manc. Whilst still in an embryonic state, DivaManc was quick to attract attention, it seemed to hit the right nerve, at the right time, with the right name! It was given oxygen and with that came a responsibility, a responsibility to help lead change for the women of Greater Manchester. So what have we been up to and where next?

Working together for shared ownership

Our starting point was to find ways to engage and work with a broad array of women as citizens to share learning around what works, what is needed and how might we achieve change together.

To do this we organised events in the communities we knew best so we could drawn on knowledge of local networks and relationships with community gatekeepers and purposefully invite and encourage underrepresented groups into the space. We held five open public events (which all booked out) and a couple of closed workshops in a school and 6th form. Not all of the sessions attracted as diverse a crowd as desired (for reasons we’ve reflected on) but it was clear there was no lack of appetite or ambition.

To help create inclusive, participatory spaces for sharing personal stories and testing solutions we utilised experienced local facilitators who were able to hold a space for deep conversation and constructive conflict. Events included mix of story telling, World Café conversations, Open Space, human centred-design and showcasing. Each event was designed to encourage all who participated to continue the conversations in the different spaces they live, work, care or study and to take action, however small, and recognise themselves as leaders of change.

Working out loud for accelerated learning

Initial conversations were local and personal but we recognised that the problem is systemic and runs throughout the political and civic ecology of Greater Manchester. And the more we looked, the more projects we saw around us that were pursuing the same aims. So we’ve enjoyed sharing our work as we go, participating in a flurry of conversations around gender, diversity, devolution and the North across different channels and spaces to include:-

  • On-line chatter, utilising our #DivaManc hashtag to open up dialogue to more people, live streaming events via Facebook and video conferencing and helped us to connect with more people and organise around our already busy lives.

  • Participating in a variety of events hosted by others including JRF, RSA, IPPR North, the Fabian Society, LGB foundation, Women’s Equality Party, Political Studies Association, Jam and Justice and the Greater Manchester All Party Parliamentary Group. And our calendars are already filling up with a brilliant array of upcoming opportunities for further exploration, reflection and action.

Contributing to consultations and research including reports by the Fawcett Society and IPPR around women’s representation and participation in local and regional governance and sharing our insight via blogs and articles e.g. for Public Sector Focus, DevoConnect and in the Spanish Tribune Feminista.

Working with leaders for change

To deliver the changes needed we need all our leaders to champion equality and help clear the blockages. Through our events, conversations and partnerships we’ve co-design five DivaManc pledges, our key calls to action, and we are asking Greater Manchester leaders to sign up to them. We started with the Mayoral candidates. The Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green candidates all signed up and Andy Burnham set out his commitment in ‘Our Manifesto’ to a gender-balanced Combined Authority, to refuse invitations to all male panels and to ‘back DivaManc pledges to promote equality, embrace diversity and enable inclusion’.

The majority of our newly elected Greater Manchester MPs have pledged their support. We are now looking for organisations and leaders across VCSE, public and private sectors to do the same and to draw on the full variety of initiatives e.g. #Believeinher in Wigan and national campaigns like the Parliament Project, and the growing activism across the city region, so we can harness all the intelligence, creativity and energy we need to make accelerated and sustained progress.

Championing inclusion, diversity and equality means much more than pledges. We need all our leaders to be in action. To be human, to be open, to be authentic: To bring their whole selves to the role. We have brilliant leaders across Greater Manchester who already do this but for many that will take a big step out of their own comfort zones. We all share a responsibility to support them in taking this step.

Get involved?

If you support our DivaManc pledges please let us know via the website (, facebook or twitter (@divamanc), or by email (

We are currently exploring alternative governance models and resourcing to ensure that DivaManc lives and breathes it’s DIVA values (diverse, inclusive, vibrant and accountable) and provides an effective framework for collaboration between all interested parties across Greater Manchester in our shared quest for gender equality.

Our next event is on 25 July to agree way forward. Further details on the website. We then hope to facilitate a number of collaborative circles, drawing on action learning and working out loud principles to help people work together for change.

Eve Holt is co-founder of DivaManc. She also co-leads Parliament Project North and M4. Eve left her first career as a public law solicitor to set up Happen Together CIC, helping people make good stuff happen through coaching and facilitation.

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