Monday 8th March 2021
More than 22 years after founding WISH, Nicola Dibb is stepping down from her role as Exec Director. Here she reflects on how a powerful message from her mum helped inspire a movement in housing that has touched the lives of thousands of women.
My mum wanted me to have opportunities she never had. That other women of her generation never got.
Housing has given me that chance.
As I look back on 22 years of Women in Social Housing – I hope that we’ve been able to pass on that message of hope and courage to others.
I didn’t do well at school. I wanted to study Estate Management at Bristol Polytechnic but didn’t get the grades. I was drifting around, not quite sure what to do.
My dad suggested I could become a PA in the City but I eventually got a job with a commercial estate agent. I kept a diary during those years,
‘Typed 3 letters today & answered the phone. Nothing else happened. Got to get out of here….’
I was bored.
Returning to the Bristol Poly Prospectus, I saw a course simply called, Housing. I filled in the application form and then promptly left it under my bed. There it languished for several weeks until my mum found it and posted it to the Course Leader, unbeknown to me.
My Mum didn’t have the opportunity to be educated – in those days a woman’s lot generally comprised of getting married and bringing up children. Those that did work went into traditionally female roles. She wanted me to tread my own path, so I have her to thank for the day Bristol Polytechnic rang up and offered me the last place on the housing course.
I fell in love with housing from then!
I built a career in the 80s and 90s working for housing associations and in the private sector. It struck me that there were very few women that I came across in my daily work.
A lot of my housing association clients were men, all the architects were men, all the employers agents were men. Where were the women?
In 1998, attending yet another networking event and being met with a sea of grey suits on entering the room, I felt my enthusiasm waning. I was used to this by now – men forming an opinion of me based on my gender before I had even had chance to express a thought or offer my experience and professional credentials.
At this particular event however, I met a small number of women that I had come across before and we gravitated together – attracting other women as we engaged in lots of chat about working in a male dominated sector. The sheer amount of shared experiences really struck me and we talked and laughed about so many things.
It was the start of a truly amazing chapter in my life.
I went home and thought how great it would be to meet up as a group with the brilliant, warm and inspiring women I’d come across that night. I decided to organise a get together for all of us again very soon and thought it would be fun to have a name for the group. WISH was born.
I worked for several more private sector contractors where I met Debra Constance who, believing in my networking idea, worked hard with me to launch our little side project.
Soon a vibrant networking group of women that worked for housing associations, local authorities and the private sector began to gain real traction.
WISH grew and grew organically beyond anything we could have imaged and by 2018 there were 10 regions across the country.
Our unique mission was to encourage more women into the housing sector, and to support those already in it to be the best version of themselves, and give them the confidence to challenge gender bias and inequality back in their workplace.
In 2019 WISH became a formally recognised Community Interest Company with a Board of volunteer Directors, Debra as Chair and myself as Executive Director.
We’ve made huge progress since that first meeting in 1998. Of course, the shift towards gender equality isn’t moving as quickly as we’d like – but it is moving, and WISH has been a part of that.
Now it is time for me to step aside and hand over the reins to a new generation of inspirational women who can bring people across housing together.
There is much to do as we move towards a fairer society and a more equal workplace.
It will be with great pride that I will watch on as WISH continues to create a space where women can come together and inspire others to push for new opportunities and break down barriers – just as my mum did for me.