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Blog: No room at the top

‘If everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other’ sang Groove Armada in the 1999 dance hit of the same name. I have to confess that over the past few years, it appears to me that the upper echelons of the social housing sector are indeed beginning to look the same. I find the under-representation of visible minorities to be blindingly obvious and morally disappointing.

The right mix

In 1989 I got my first job in housing. It was in an estate-based housing office with six other members of staff, and our manager was the only man in the office. In subsequent roles I have been part of genuinely mixed teams with a range of male, female, black, white, disabled, straight and gay people. However, as I have risen through the ranks, my colleagues seem to start looking more and more alike – mostly male and nearly always white. As a result I’ve often wondered where all those people I worked with earlier in my career have gone. If you walk into the reception of any housing association or local authority you are very likely to be greeted by a black customer services officer, an Asian receptionist or a disabled housing officer. The security teams, call centre staff, cleaners, estate services, post room staff and sheltered housing scheme officers will more than likely be made of up of a wide range of ethnicities. Even in parts of the country where there are virtually no ethnic minority communities, you will still see front line positions dominated by female members of staff. But as soon as you ask for a manager, head of department or a director, the chances are that you will not be speaking to a woman, nor someone from an ethnic minority.

I’d imagine that every housing association and local authority has excellently crafted equal opportunity policies and well intentioned training and development strategies. And everyone is aware of the requirements of the 2010 Equalities Act. So what happens between the front line and the chief executive’s office/board room? Why are there so few female leaders in the sector? What happens to all the brilliant, knowledgeable and capable women, and all the talented and hardworking minority staff? Do they not get promoted? Do they not apply for the jobs? If they don’t apply, does anyone know why? Does anyone care?

The 15 per centers

More than 50 per cent of members of the Chartered Institute of Housing are female. However, fewer than 15 of the leaders of the top 100 housing associations are female. It is very encouraging that we have the likes of Grainia Long running the CIH, Pat Ritchie at the helm of the Homes and Communities Agency and the aforementioned 15 or so women who run some of the country’s largest housing associations. But my concern is that they are the exceptions.

At any social housing seminar, round table or working party you can usually count the women participants on the fingers of one hand. There will perhaps be one black or Asian person and very rarely a disabled person in the room. To look at the list of speakers at the main housing conferences (CIH in Manchester and National Housing Federation in Birmingham) you’d think there were very few women in the sector and that ethnic minority and disabled people were not welcome. A friend of mine who came to the Manchester conference last week said she was shocked by the lack of diversity among the speakers as well as delegates. And she works in the IT industry.

I had always thought the social housing sector was one of the more progressive parts of the public sector. Surely we are better than the police force, the judiciary, social work, the teaching profession, nursing, universities or the Communities and Local Government department even, in promoting diversity and supporting all staff to reach their full potential? But alas we are not better; we are worse because there is no sector-wide acknowledgement of this fact, and the powers that be are doing nothing about this issue.

No excuses

For example, there was ‘Get Ahead’, a national programme set up to support ethnic minority staff in the social care sector to gain promotion. The Ministry of Justice undertook a public consultation ‘Appointments and Diversity’ in November 2011 in recognition of the lack of diversity among judges, and in November 2009 teachers’ union NASUWT commissioned a report into ‘Leadership Aspirations and Careers of Black and Minority Ethnic Teachers’. Key recommendations included the need to track by ethnicity, sex and local authority, the career paths of minority teachers.

Closer to home is the CLG’s 2010/11 ‘Workforce Diversity Data Report’, published in May 2012. This recommends:

  1. the appointment of a board champion to ensure a cross-departmental focus on equalities at the executive team level

  2. active talent management in areas where representation of diverse groups is of concern. These areas include the very low numbers of ethnic minority officers and staff applying and qualifying for promotion to chief officer level; the relatively low numbers of women seeking and obtaining promotion; and the low numbers of ethnic minority officers in specialist roles.

I’ve not yet met anyone who does not openly appreciate the power of diversity. Everyone agrees it is beneficial to have a range of opinion and a variety of outlooks, so why is the sector looking more and more homogenous? In such critical times who is to say that one bright idea to solve the housing crisis does not dwell within someone whose voice is not being heard? If no less than the government department run by Eric Pickles recognises this concern, why does social housing seem intent on remaining blind to this and pretending everything is fine?

Lara Oyedele is chief executive of Odu-Dua Housing Association and chair of BMEnational

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