24housing’s Mark Lawrence rounds up the challenges, potential solutions and what is already being done to combat key issues.
The roundtable needed no introduction. All attendees have made the business and moral case umpteen times in the past year, as the sector has built up momentum behind the diversity cause.
There have been some improvements to diversity over the past 12 months, but this has not yet manifested itself at the top levels of housing.
Chief Executives and Boards are still predominantly white and male, with the age range still leaving a lot to be desired.
Darwin Bernardo, Founder of Nutmeg and Barnet Homes resident, summed up the challenges well, saying: “It is hard for me to see people that look like me from the community, or like-minded individuals in certain positions. It is hard for me to be inspired by something that doesn’t have any relevance to me.”
L&Q’s Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Jan Gale, said it makes it “harder to create a feeling of trust”.
Jamie Ratcliff, Assistant Director of Housing at the Greater London Authority, said the issue was one of leadership, saying: “This has got to be seen as the business as a whole. It is fundamental that businesses can only be successful if they are more diverse.
He added: “Considering the tests we are facing across housebuilding, safety issues and how we listen to residents, there are a whole load of issues that aren’t going to be responded to unless there is a proper breadth of diversity.
“That isn’t going to come from box ticking. That is going to come from understanding that your organisations needs to change culturally.”
Steve Douglas, Co-Chief Executive at Altair, said the issue was also one of reputation.
Citing the riots of the 1980s that sparked the creation of the BME housing sector and more recently Grenfell, he said the issue comes down to the “sector’s connectedness to communities”.
He added: “If we aren’t able to demonstrate that connection and there are no role models, then we have a major reputational issue.”
Both Kate Dodsworth, Chief Executive at Gateway Housing Association and Emma Burrows, Partner at Trowers and Hamlins, stressed the need to challenge what they called a “nice sector”.
And Maureen Pringle of Riverside said the sector had created “the monster”, and that the moment the sector wants to act and take solid action, it can solve the problem.
With the issues and the potential reasons behind those issues on the table, how would the participants tackle these challenges?
The room agreed that the Rooney Rule was a good start, but that housing associations should go much further. The fact is that most housing associations hadn’t even adopted the “light” Rooney Rule.
Ria Bailes, One Housing Group’s HR Director, said it was time for HR to step up to the plate.
“They need to up their game. It is all very well having a board or CEO saying this is a focus. But when it comes to actually holding people to account or changing those processes, it is quite often down to the HR teams to push it.”
Kate Dodsworth said the sector needed “a shot in the arm”, adding: “50% of the problem is around the people recruiting. We need to get around their unconscious bias.
“I have heard people say that a diverse board is somehow at odds to a skilled board. We need to counter that.”
Darwin Bernardo said the sector needed to make individuals “really care” about the issue.
He said: “We can’t make people buy into something they aren’t passionate about or doesn’t affect them on a day-to-day basis.
Unfortunately, until we make diversity something that the people we are asking to change a priority for them, we are just going to be here again next year.”
Jamie Ratcliff went further, arguing some leaders should step aside, saying: “One of the big barriers in the sector are the leaders that has been around for a while have a bit of initiative fatigue.
He added: “They have seen some of these things come back around and they no longer feel it will work. They need to move on and their organisations need to be refreshed. If they don’t have that passion and drive, then what are they doing?”
Iniquilab Chair Olu Olanrewaju also had stern words for the sector: “I don’t have the confidence in this cohort of leadership because they have been going around in a circle on this. It has got to be the next generation of leaders who takes this on.
“I don’t see any systemic change in the sector at the moment that will achieve this.
He added: “I am not saying regulation is a panacea to the problem, but if there is no enforcement or consequence it doesn’t happen.
“That is the problem for the sector – you can go by without being held accountable. There needs to be an ongoing dialogue to ensure people are held to account and then in time people will rise up and take responsibility.”
But there is already some good practice occurring in the sector. The roundtable was keen to highlight this and encourage others to share the work their doing, so that organisations aren’t working in silo.
Alison Muir, Director of Operations at Peabody, explained how she changed the conversation in her organisation on diversity, saying: “I chair the BAME Group at Peabody, and when I raise issues, there is sometimes the rolling of the eyes, like ‘oh not this again’.
“The first thing I did was to change the name to Unify. On that basis, we had unprecedented number of people wanting to be involved.
She continued: “If it is not inclusive then it excludes the people who aren’t from a minority background, when actually they are part of the solution here. I’ve now got people in the group who are white, which we have never had before.
“They see it as an opportunity to make a change in the organisation.”
Jan Gale said her organisation was changing the way it operates to make it more diverse, with new recruitment practices.
Ria Bailes touched on apprenticeships, saying it is a “missed opportunity” to bring more diverse talent into the organisation.
She said: “We don’t often hear about diversity in apprenticeships. I am disappointed about that. You want to see change at the top of the organisation, but you also need to ensure that pipeline is being developed, so that talent is being nurtured throughout the whole of the organisation.”
She said this is something that One Housing were now looking to develop as a priority, as well as extending this out to other housing associations to take advantage of.
So, to the panel, what would success on diversity look like?
Darwin suggested it would mean “not sitting around this table again”, while Maureen said that “meetings would all look as diverse as this”.
Jamie said it would be to see a leadership that was “passionate about leading an organisation that is delivering real change”.
Steve said that it would be about talking to a “different demographic” and not preaching to the converted, while for Matt, it would have to be around “seeing a shift in the stats or this is nothing more than a nice afternoon chat”.
And on that note, the roundtable was over. Hopefully not just a “nice afternoon chat”, but something the sector can build on.
Part of the struggle with the diversity challenge, the panel say, is that the sector “recognises that it actually has a problem”.
These conversations may go some way toward showing housing providers they do have an issue. But only by working as a sector, will real change take place. Success will be these 12 not sitting around the same table debating the same issues in a year’s time. Let’s see how that plays out.