The need to do more

Recent years have seen the advent of major diversity drives and initiatives, yet the housing sector is still falling short of achieving true equality at the top.

Mark Lawrence asks what the sector can do to ensure it makes real progress in the year 2020.

There are over a thousand housing providers in the UK, yet the percentage of chief executives from a BME background doesn’t even hit the 1% mark.

Recently, there has been an upheaval of CEOs in housing, yet only Octavia Housing appointed a leader from a BME background.

Executive teams represent a better mix, but still there is a long way to go. The barriers some face in getting into these positions is eye-opening, and yet when BME individuals are appointed, they excel.

Cym D’Souza, BME National chair and chief executive of Arawak Walton Housing Association, says the evidence is damning: “BAME individuals struggle to achieve the same progression opportunities as their white counterparts, a pattern reflected in the housing sector.

“Research highlights the value of effective mentoring in engaging with and sustaining leadership pathways for BAME employees, the need to talk about race to create truly inclusive workplaces, and the role of leaders taking responsibility for creating positive and meaningful change.”

The sector is well versed on the problem. How does it now go about fixing it?

Leadership 2025 is one initiative looking to change the status quo. Although its ambitions are more long term, the theory behind it is already prompting providers to think differently.

The programme aims to empower BME individuals to be leaders of the future, pitched at those already in senior leadership positions. 11 people have come through the programme in just two years, with another six currently engaged.

“Some have gone on to achieve promotions, or more senior roles in other organisations,” says Gina Amoh, chair of Leadership 2025, “some have become board members.”

“One was voted Professional Woman of the Year at a prestigious housing-sector awards, with others taking the prominent sector-leadership award.”

Other initiatives include Black on Board, which seeks to equip BME individuals with the skills needed to be part of a board and play a greater role at the top tables.

There has also been a drive from trade bodies, with the National Housing Federation running a Diversity and Inclusion conference and establishing a Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion in Housing Group to push key learning and best practice across the sector.

Comprising key players from across the sector, the latter aims to “drive a shift in culture in delivering inclusive workplaces”.

But Amoh, who is also chief executive at Inquilab HA, is keen to stress that more work is needed, saying: “We’ve found that, unless the approach to supporting, growing, and appointing diverse talent is championed from the top of the organisation at board and executive level, progress is still woefully slow.”

Some organisations such as L&Q and Peabody have taken on this mantle, adopting the Rooney Rule – a commitment from housing providers to interview at least one individual from a BME background when recruiting for a role – and promoting talent from within.

The Greater Manchester Housing Partnership has made mentoring a key focus, with senior-leadership teams reflecting on how to remove barriers and provide opportunities with honest discussions.

D’Souza explains more: “We believe that, when senior leaders mentor up-and-coming BAME employees, they become much more aware of the additional challenges BAME employees may face in developing their careers.

“The reciprocal mentoring approach empowers and motivates senior leaders to act as change agents to create more inclusive workplaces.

“Unlike other mentoring schemes, the programme is not about making BAME staff ‘fit’ into a career pathway that turns out to be well-designed for white staff, but a means of challenging GMHP [Greater Manchester Housing Providers] to develop more empowering and inclusive career pathways.”

Samantha Herelle, director of operations, Mount Green Housing Association, says the sector needs to look at a different part of the recruitment process. “The selection panel itself could be the key to releasing the bottleneck, as it is confident decision making that will really make the difference,” she says.

“Diverse shortlists are an important step, but organisations should also consider diverse selection panels and be really creative in making this happen. Further, independence of thought within the selection process could play an important role in challenging ‘group think’ and detecting unconscious bias.”

She adds: “Selection panels should spend time not only looking back at what a candidate has achieved but considering how that achievement potential can be realised into the future. The final step would be not only to provide meaningful feedback to unsuccessful candidates but also to obtain and welcome candidate feedback.”

Applying these principles to recruitment and progression within organisations has often proved successful.

Shepherds Bush Housing Group transformed the makeup of its board and senior leadership team, Metropolitan Thames Valley and Gateway Housing Association have taken strides to redress the balance, and many housing organisations are implementing programmes to improve talent pipelines.

But as Amoh says, “the proof will be whether the stats change,” and the sector must really commit to change if it is to hit the numbers needed.

Without incoming regulatory intervention, it is up to senior leaders in the sector to drive this agenda forward and ensure those from BME backgrounds are fairly represented at all levels. Let’s see if they are up for it.