What lessons should housing professionals learn from the past, and how will this help the sector adapt in the future?
Gender equality is something that I’m passionate about. I believe that everyone should be enabled to achieve the same opportunities in life, and this applies to us as housing professionals and the customers that we are here to provide services to. I think the main thing to recognise is that although things have gotten drastically better for women in recent years, we’re still not quite there yet in terms of equality.
Culturally there are still gender roles to some extent, but as little as 30 years ago, this was more apparent than ever. Women were, and still are, the majority of primary care givers; looking after children and bringing up the next generation. They predominantly worked lower paid roles such as clerical and administration jobs, and often experienced sexism and belittlement if they wanted a fulfilling career.
We know that women can achieve more than this if they choose to, but there is little argument to oppose that they faced more challenges along the way in the past. Some would argue that it is still more challenging for women today to progress in their careers.
In 1968, women working for the Ford factory in Dagenham went on strike to protest about the lack of equal pay. This meant that the production of Ford cars in the UK ground to a halt. So what can we learn from this? We need women in any industry. We need their skills and their abilities.
It was strong women who advocated for change in housing and pioneered the sector, shaping it into what it is today. Women such as Octavia Hill who inspired the creation of The Association of Women Housing Workers in 1916, which is now the Chartered Institute of Housing. To put this in perspective, this organisation was set up a decade before women had the right to vote. And Erin Pizzey, who in 1971 set up the first women’s refuge for those suffering from domestic abuse.
Margaret Thatcher had a huge impact on housing, and although I believe that the mass selling of council homes was a mistake that is sadly being repeated, there is no doubt she shaped the sector.
I read an article in Inside Housing called ‘Women on Top’, where the 25 most powerful women in the sector were interviewed about their experiences. One comment resonated with me, which was that women tend to have less self belief than men when it came to progressing to the top of their sector. I wondered, why? Especially when the aforementioned women had such an impact on this sector and these women being interviewed had achieved so much themselves. I came to the conclusion that it was because we still live in a society where women are still gender stereotyped to a degree, and are therefore massively under represented at executive level.
When we have a female population of just over 50% in the UK, why is it that 75% of Chief Executives in housing are male? It also struck me that 18 of these 25 amazing women specified whether they did or did not have children. Would the 25 most powerful men in housing feel it necessary to divulge this information? I’m not convinced they would. With the potential likelihood of a female President of the United States will women in our profession rise to the same level and equal men at the higher levels in the future?
We know from the past that diversity in society is essential for sustainability, and this is the same for gender equality. The more diverse sets of skills that an organisation has, the further we can go and the more we can achieve. We need to ensure that our customers are truly represented in our organisations, in our staff, boards and resident involvement. If the fundamentals are not reflective of the customers then how can we deliver a good and fair service?
Gender equality is even more vital for the future and the challenges the sector is facing. We need to be more stringent on our finances whilst still delivering desperately needed services, and we can achieve better value for money by directing these resources in the best way possible by having as much diversity and reflective representation as possible.
We have the opportunity to be an exemplary sector in gender equality. In my experience, housing management roles tends to attract more female workers, and with the huge challenges that housing will be facing with new policies and proposed deregulation, these workers are going to experience a whole host of new problems to solve. These new skills are what will drive the sector forward, and we need to be creative to keep hold of these women. For example, ukfeminsta.org.uk states that “54% of women working part-time have been found to be employed below their potential”. We need to look at ensuring that this potential is maximised in the future, and if it means a job share at executive level for example, then why not?
Idealistically, a quota system could be used in recruiting for executive positions, much like the Swedish Government’s initiative to promote females to ensure fair representation. This could be business wide to promote fair representation throughout the lower levels of the organisations where there are less male workers for example.
Realistically, we need to ensure that everyone is given the same opportunities without discrimination. This means enabling more women to progress by increased flexible working, filling skill gaps by education and training, and assistance with childcare for example.
I will conclude with a quote, from a man no less. Former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan once said: “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.”
Empowered women achieve great things. They have done so in the past and they will be essential in moving the sector forward in the future.