Women in Social Housing round-table summary

Published on 12th June 2018 by WISH Midlands Region

The round-table was held on 9 March 2018 celebrate International Women’s Day 2018 to both build on its momentum to advance females in the social housing sector. The aim was to highlight issues such as the gender pay gap and the lack of women in leadership positions and seek potential solutions, with questions sent in via Twitter.


The discussion was led by the chair of the Midlands WISH board, Rebecca Clarke, and hosted by Trowers & Hamlins.



Rebecca Clarke, Chair of WISH Midlands

Helen Greig, East Midlands External Affairs Manager at National Housing Federation

Gemma Bell, Partner at Antony Collins Solicitors

Amy Nettleton, Assistant Director of Development at Aster

Debbie Griffiths, Housing Consultant & Mentor/Coach

Mark Lawrence, Editor at 24housing

Nick Dodgeon, Board Member at Resolve ASB

Yetunde Dania, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins

Sue Adams, Managing Director of Star Housing

Janine Green, Managing Director of Resolve ASB



  1. The important role women play in social housing. Why are female leaders important?


Women are vital to the housing sector, making up a large proportion of workers, volunteers and engaged tenants. It is only in leadership that women – and all minorities – are poorly represented. Everyone present felt the sector needed more diversity.


Representatives of organisations with strong female leadership teams said that women often bring a more flexible way of working, perhaps in part to their need to juggle work and home life. They felt this had a positive and transformative effect on the company’s culture.


The leaders in the room commented that it doesn’t matter when the work is done, as long as it’s of a high quality and meets deadlines. This ethos also positively impacts staff morale and retention. Some even felt that flexibility was more important than money and a great way to attract millennials.


Flexible working has to come from the top down: if staff see an organisation’s leader using flexible working it gives them the confidence to do the same. There is still a hesitancy to use flexible working, one attendee cited the example that no one would comment if a man takes half a day to play golf, as opposed to a woman doing the same to visit a hairdresser. Others said that they are challenged on working flexible working if they don’t have children.


  1. How your careers began and challenges getting into first management role?


The attendees had a variety of experiences in securing their first management role, which had been impacted positively and negatively by their bosses – both male and female.


Several women at the table felt that they naturally downplayed their own successes and were mentored, championed and put forward for leadership roles by men. Some even felt that their female bosses had struggled to showcase them. Others, including the two men present, said that it was their female bosses who challenged and encouraged them to reach their potential.

One attendee who worked predominately with men felt so drained by their style of management she saw a business coach to gain back her confidence and sense of empowerment. She now uses her own position as a platform to increase diversity and sees her team as her legacy.


Another struggled with impostor syndrome: a feeling of inadequacy despite evidence of success. She used mentoring to overcome a need to be the loudest and most dominant person in a meeting.


A former chief executive said that to reach this position she needed to act as ‘wonder woman’, overworking and taking on every challenge, a feat she found exhausting. This also led to underperformance in her team, as they felt they either couldn’t do the job as well as she could or that she would pick up any slack. She advocated that vulnerability goes a long way and ultimately leads to more career satisfaction.


The mothers present felt that their careers were impacted when they had children, particularly during maternity leave. One attendee cited returning from maternity leave to a restructure and having to choose between a promotion – with no flexible working and longer hours – or a demotion. She ultimately progressed to senior management, but the experience has had a long-term impact on her family. Several women also commented that they were ironically pressured to have children after working hard to secure leadership positions.



  1. What’s stopping opportunity? Should quotas become mandatory for the sector?


It was unanimously agreed that quotas in the sector, relating to race, gender or sexuality, should not be mandatory. While it was acknowledged that they encourage inclusivity, quotas perpetuate tokenism and often set people up to fail. They also overshadow genuine accomplishments of people who secure the role on merit.


Putting the wrong person in the role could end in failure, damaging the confidence of the woman and compounding the view that a man would have been better. Plus, that it was quite offensive to think that this was the only way women (or minority groups) could get into these roles


Quotas are easy to meet; more difficult is building the foundation to create the best people for the job, irrespective of background and diversity. The sector needs to reach out to children well before they reach their A-levels to create this pipeline of talent.


The social culture in the sector also needs to change. For example, networking sessions such as the recent ‘Beauty, Bubbles and Business’ hosted by Devonshires, demonstrate a misunderstanding of what women in the sector want. Events that occur at the weekend/late evening also potentially hinder opportunity as they can exclude women with children, which has a long-term impact on career progression.



  1. How important are good mentors?


The housing sector doesn’t adequately invest in mentoring, which is vital to wellbeing and progression. To avoid any negative associations with mentoring, chief executives should be transparent about having their own mentor, creating a culture that trickles down through the organisation.


Several attendees found mentoring a way to overcome both wonder woman and imposter syndrome. Another commented that it was the only place where she could cry without being accused of manipulation or being too emotional.


The group also advocated the benefits of reverse mentoring – millennials teaching senior team members on topics such as using Twitter. Both types of mentoring encourage a culture where people productively challenge others to become their best selves.



  1. What behaviours do successful women adopt in the workplace? How important is assertiveness?


The nature of success is subjective and it can be easy to get swept up in what others want. The following definition was agreed upon: one minute on your deathbed to answer the question ‘what have you achieved?’

Women need to be better at owning their successes and admitting when they’re good at certain things – without the fear of being perceived as arrogant. Language is also important; not using words such as lucky to explain away success. One attendee said that each time she felt she benefitted from an opportunity she countered it with an instance where she overcame a challenge.


Being assertive can be misinterpreted as aggressiveness and that women don’t need to be loud or bullish to be listened to. One attendee recalled being the only female in meeting with men shouting over one another, and requesting that they each take it in turns to each present their own point.



  1. How do we involve men in the debate and what can we learn from them?


It is important to get the messaging right to engage men and to gain their support. Equality is about wellbeing, feel more valued and not hiding your true self. Women need to find the middle ground between acting masculine and ‘girl power’, or they run the risk of trivialising their message.


Several attendees said they avoid women-only groups as they do not want to be seen as a representative of all females. They’d rather be asked about housing than what is it like to be a woman in housing.


Women can learn from the confidence of men. For example, in regards to accomplishments, men are more likely to use language such as ‘I’, whereas women use ‘we’, and one attendee cited a study where in a scenario where a man and women are only partly qualified for a job description, a man is more likely to apply than a woman.


  1. How do we embed these changes?

It was discussed what WISH can do to get the message out and bring real change.  It was suggested that it could approach organisations to comment on what they’re doing to encourage women into their organisation and within organisations and ask them to publicly pledge to one commitment to advance women in their organisation over the next 12 months.

WISH Midlands will also continue to use different platforms to speak about the issues and champion the role of housing, both in and out of the sector. It will invite successful women (and men) to tell their stories and give workshops on leadership skills and resilience, as well as offering a mentoring programme.

Plans were also discussed for a potential future round-table on International Men’s Day (19 November) to bring them into the conversation.

About the author

WISH Midlands Region

Women in Social Housing (WISH) is a networking group established 25 years ago in London.
The Midlands group represents both East and West Midlands and is the second-newest of eight regions.

To join WISH Midlands or to find out more about our next event, follow @wishmidlands on Twitter

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