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‘Absolutely not good enough’ – Norfolk Enterprise Festival under fire for all-male panel

Entrepreneurs and their families at the Norfolk Enterprise Festival. Picture: Christine Barrass Photography

Entrepreneurs and their families at the Norfolk Enterprise Festival. Picture: Christine Barrass Photography

Christine Barrass Photography

The organisers of the first Norfolk Enterprise Festival have come under fire for hosting an all-male panel to discuss the county’s business future.

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The panel – originally intended to be formed of East Anglian MPs – were quizzed by entrepreneurs at the festival at the weekend, since when questions have been raised at the lack of diversity among the seven panellists.

When Liz Truss, MP for South West Norfolk, and Chloe Smith, MP for Norwich North, were unable to attend, they were replaced by Chris Starkie, managing director of the New Anglia LEP, and Chris Sargisson, chief executive of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce.

This led to questions on Twitter, with some members of the Norfolk business community telling organisers it was “absolutely not good enough”.

But organisers said they had encountered a shortage of female decision-makers in the county.

Libby Brown, project co-ordinator of the Norfolk Enterprise Festival, said: “This panel was intended to be Norfolk business’s key decision-makers, who would provide support for a Norfolk Charter to be sent to Westminster.

“When we were planning the panel, we wanted it to be balanced. When Liz Truss and Chloe Smith couldn’t attend, we invited Dame Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking, and Thérèse Coffey, MP for Suffolk Coastal. Unfortunately they also couldn’t come.

“We soon realised that although there are plenty of men in these roles, there are very few women in these decision-making roles in Norfolk and in the business world, and that’s not as it should be.”

She added: “Liz Truss and Chloe Smith were replaced by two people who are big decision makers for business in Norfolk, and in that regard who else could we have asked than the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce and the LEP?”

Entrepreneurs listen to talks at the Norfolk Enterprise Festival. Picture: Christine Barrass PhotographyEntrepreneurs listen to talks at the Norfolk Enterprise Festival. Picture: Christine Barrass Photography

Among those raising questions about the lack of diversity was Tom Haczewski, founder of tech company The User Story, who said: “It is not enough to invite one or two women onto a panel and then say ‘oh well’ when they say no.

“Event organisers have a responsibility to make sure we make fair and equal representation. There were young people in the audience that saw the region’s leaders as seven white men.”

The members of the panel were Sir Henry Bellingham, MP for North West Norfolk, Stephen Barclay, MP for North East Cambridgeshire, Chris Sargisson, chief executive of Norfolk Chamber, Tom FitzPatrick, former leader of North Norfolk District Council, Chris Starkie, chief executive of New Anglia LEP, Brian Long, leader of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council, and George Freeman, MP for Mid Norfolk. The panel discussion was compered by Peter Wilson, former chief executive of Norwich Theatre Royal.

Other panels on the day included an Angels’ Den panel, balanced between men and women, as was the Ask the Experts panel.

The winner of the Angels’ Den prize was the female founder of a Norwich app company SupaPass, Juliana Meyer.

Mr Freeman said: “Promoting and championing the many brilliant women in business in Norfolk is a major theme of the festival. Our festival team was all women and many of the entrepreneurs we showcased were women.

“It was striking that the political panel was all-male - highlighting why we need more women in local and central government.”

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