Women and Leadership In Housing – What’s The Plan?

Despite women making up the majority of employees and service users in the UK and Global Social Housing Sector, they are still vastly underrepresented in Management and Leadership roles. It seems strange this should still be the case, particularly as other public sector roles traditionally assigned to men, such as Doctors and senior healthcare professionals, no longer appear to suffer this divide. Could it be that as nursing was historically a feminine role, and women have had a stronger voice in medicine and healthcare for longer, it has partly paved the way more easily for equality to transcend sexism in the sector, and thus allowed a faster, more open route to senior leadership positions?

Constructive Criticism

Social Housing, by its very nature, has always been intrinsically connected to Construction and other traditionally male dominated industries such as Asset Management and Fire Safety, and this may well be part of the problem, if not the main reason for the sector dragging its heels so slowly as it attempts to catch up with the rest of the public sector. The UK construction industry has a big problem. To keep up with demand, it needs another 1 million workers by 2020. Women are expected to make up a quarter of the workforce and will likely be instrumental in plugging this growing gap, however if these vital cogs in the wheel of UK housing are to work effectively and bridge the gender pay, skills and leadership tri-chasm they must be prepared to overhaul their image and open the doors to a more female friendly workforce.

Where Does It STEM From?

Technology is another important area which is affecting the disproportionately low number of women in leadership roles. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is currently receiving a lot of momentum, especially in schools and colleges, as the government roles out well-meaning initiatives aimed at plugging the skills gap, by arming our future workforce with the knowledge and awareness they will need to enter these skill-starved industries. However, unless the reasons behind the gender divide are properly addresses this may only serve to perpetuate the problem, as more male students are encouraged into the sectors that require these skills, without considering the reasons behind the lack of take up from girls and women. At present just 15% of the core STEM professional roles are taken by females, and only 5% are in Leadership positions (PWC).

Vote of No Confidence

The PWC gender gap study makes for some sober reading. They researched over 2,000 A-Level and university students, which revealed the gender gap in technology actually starts at school and carries on through every stage of a woman’s life. According to the study, only 27% of female students say they would consider a career in technology, compared to 61% of males, and only 3% say it is their first choice. But what could be the reasons behind this?

Apparently, there are several factors:

  • UK female students appear to lack confidence in themselves, despite statistically preforming just as well, if not better, than boys in most STEM subjects. The lack of confidence in these subjects is unusual and irregular when compared to other countries such as the US and China.
  • Sexism in the classroom, workplace and industry networking arenas are, according to the study, still rife in industries associated with STEM subjects, although in many cases subtle and vastly underplayed.
  • Lack of opportunity for women to progress into leadership roles once in these industry sectors means more women being sidestepped once they have returned from starting a family and resumed their careers within the sector.
  • The gender pay gap still has a strangle hold on the housing and associated industry sectors, although as of this April all authorities had to publish their gender pay gaps by law, which may now start to have an impact in addressing the divide.

Leading the Way in Modern Leadership

Frustratingly, many of the modern Leadership qualities that are becoming necessary in an evolving global business environment are ones that women have in abundance and are being massively undervalued. For instance, 83% of British female millennials actively seek out employers with a strong record on diversity, equality and inclusion, and 50% say the most important factor when choosing their future career is that the work they do has a positive wider impact. Only 31% of males in the study felt the same, according to the PWC research.

Another study by Global Tolerance in 2015 shows that girls, particularly in the UK, are statistically on average more proficient at collaborative problem solving than boys (Guardian), which is a vital soft skill our industries are falling short of, and now that technology and IT play more fundamental roles in cross-sharing responsibilities and tasks, is much needed when bringing together differing collaborative factions working towards a common goal.

We Need A Plan if We Are To Succeed

Succession Planning is another hot topic making a comeback to the sector, and not before time. As those in senior housing leadership roles head towards retirement with no implementation plan to share their wealth of knowledge and skills with the younger generation, they are leaving no baton to pass down. As middle point positions and roles are removed to cut costs and save on resources, the gap between the old school generation and the emerging millennial workforce becomes a pressing issue and an urgent subject to address. Generally it can be said women in leadership roles are more likely to implement a succession plan to nurture and arm the up and coming talent, as well as, out of necessity, understanding and sharing many key similar requirements of the younger millennial workforce as a whole. Agile and flexible work practices, less hierarchy, more autonomy and trust, and a more collaborative approach, are all fast becoming part the emerging leadership model in a more diverse, technologically dependant and globalised business landscape.

Passing The Baton

Positively there are some great things happening to encourage more women into the sector’s senior roles. The CIH’s Women In Social Housing (WISH) has set up multiple regional groups that hold networking events which bring together UK female housing talent from all over the country, including major influencers and doers, and creating a vast network that is both inclusive of women, whilst assisting the younger generation with a step up onto the social housing career ladder, with better opportunities, better pay, a valuable place in society, and the leadership skills to equip them to become our future change managers and innovators.

To carry on the baton and reach even further, myself and Daniel Short, Director at Greenacre Recruitment, a social housing recruiter and thought leadership influencer within the sector, have teamed up with Sara Thakker, Chief Executive at Colne Housing in Essex and Anna O’Halloran, Director at O’Halloran Consultants Ltd, as part of a steering group to address some of the above issues and aim to create an environment in the South East where women from the sector can meet, exchange ideas, create more leadership opportunities for one another, and push a constructive pathway  through many of the obstacles currently being faced.

We can understand why and we can see how these obstacles have been occurring in the sector. It’s now time to implement the solutions, and devise control measures that will ensure 2018 is the year we not only catch up with gender equality in leadership…but start leading from the front.


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