Mark Lawrence hosted a special Women in Social Housing roundtable to mark international Women’s Day and seek potential solutions.
The lack of gender equality in the sector has been highlighted by various reports over the past year, and there is now a concerted effort to rectify the disparity.
One of the main groups pushing for change is Women in Social Housing (WISH).
Now operating for 20 years, WISH has become the hub for promoting young female talent in the sector.
The roundtable started by looking at the change over those 20 years, with Nicola Dibb, one of the co-founders of WISH, saying that she is no longer looked at like she is “just there to make a coffee”.
This was seconded by Melissa Woodall, chair of newly formed WISH South East: “I’ve only been in social housing for 10 years, but in that time we have definitely moved on and become more open-minded.”
There were stories from others around the table about people “falling asleep on me” and “gender imbalances at the top of organisations”.
But there was also rays of positivity, with Gill Watson of WISH Cumbria saying: “I was personally very lucky. What I found over time was that all it took was one very enlightened man to decide that women had something to offer. That has prompted a lot of the changes that I have witnessed.”
Talk moves quickly on to what housing can do to change the experiences of women entering the sector.
It is perhaps evident of the situation that many of the participants around the table used words such as “lucky” and “fortunate”.
How would they act to ensure the next generation aren’t using the same words, because the norm has changed to women having the same opportunities as men?
Rebecca Clarke, chair of WISH Midlands, said it is about creating positive role models: “We had a CEO speak to us and talk about the shadow she cast. She said she didn’t feel like a good role model because her organisation looked up to her and thought she was unflappable.
“They were coming up to her and saying they couldn’t do what she could do as she didn’t show that emotive side of her personality. But the reality is, they could.”
For Beth Nicholls, chair of WISH Cumbria, it is more about changing perceptions among women outside of the sector: “When we are in schools, we ask the girls if they would consider a job in the trades, and they usually laugh. There is still that stereotype there.”
Elaine Allen, who sits on the WISH London board, said she would like to see women not just “fall into housing” like she did. She also said she would like to see an end to those women who never fulfil their potential and end up leaving the sector.
For Kelly Henderson, co-founder of the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance and board member at WISH North East, there is a need for the sector to tackle “toxic masculinity”.
She explained: “It has an impact on men and women. Challenging that toxic masculinity means women don’t think they have to act like men do and we can just be ourselves.”
Caroline Gitsham, chair of the WISH North East board, said change simply “isn’t coming quick enough”.
She said: “You go to award ceremonies and there is a stage full of old white men. Some of the pay gaps suggested it would take nearly 200 years to get women on the same level.
“The sector is more diverse than others, but there should be a lack of tolerance towards the pace of change. I am not sure if the regulator should be paying more attention to drive that pace of change.”
Conversation moves to the importance of a group like WISH and how it has the power to be more than it already is.
Lizzie House, who sits on the WISH Yorkshire and Humberside board, said the networking events were important to her: “A lot of the events in housing are geared up for chief executives, which can be really intimidating for a young person coming into the sector for the first time.”
The sentiment was backed by Caroline Gitsham, who added: “WISH events allow women to have conversations they couldn’t have in any other environment. The learning from that is so important to people.
“But we do need more men to come along to champion women in the workplace.”
Shirley Heapey, from the WISH SE board, said it wasn’t talking about how “men are awful”, saying: “The events are to give women the confidence to go out and get the best jobs. There are some women who shut the door behind them after reaching a high point. Now we need to give back.”
For others, such as Tessa Shelley of WISH London, the mentoring side was important: “It isn’t just about getting on at work but also about general life skills. I can’t thank my mentors enough.”
While there has been some progress over the past 20 years, the need for WISH is still essential.
But through the networking events, the mentoring and the support given to each other in the regional groups, WISH is providing a stronger foundation for all women in the sector.
In a year’s time, let’s hope meaningful change has been achieved.
Nicola Dibb Executive director and co-founder
Debra Constance co-founder
Beth Nicholls Chair of WISH Cumbria board
Rebecca Clarke Chair of WISH Midlands board
Caroline Gitsham Chair of WISH North East board
Gill Walton WISH Cumbria board member
Lynn Clayton WISH Midlands board member
Kelly Henderson WISH North East board member
Lizzie House WISH Yorkshire and Humberside board member
Melissa Woodall Chair of WISH South East board
Shirley Heapy WISH South East board member
Elaine Allen Former London Board Member and WISH Ambassador
Tessa Shelley WISH London board member