Equality and diversity — case not (yet) closed

In this article I’m going to look at how housing associations manage equality and diversity as a test case to understand the issues around equality and diversity better. Sometimes the stuff you read in the news (or on social media) starts to bleed into real life. With #Metoo, Harvey Weinstein, Philip Green all hot in the news it’s hard to escape the idea that societal attitudes are changing. These are times where it feels the very definition of equality is being redrawn. But is the way we think about equality and diversity issues in work keeping apace with societal developments? What does it mean if we are not?

Housing associations have a long and noble tradition of embracing equality and diversity from back in their earliest days, long before anybody was woke and while society was still using terms to describe people we would find completely unacceptable today. Housing associations are there to fill a market failure for housing, and this market failure is a driver for enormous inequality in the UK. The fact that lack of access to safe homes is disproportionately felt by vulnerable groups such as care leavers, those with severe disabilities or complex needs, those in a domestic violence situation or in certain social and ethnic groups for example is a truism of life for those in the housing sector. The read-across between a passion for social housing and a passion for supporting the equalities agenda seems obvious. Even of a very practical level it’s never hard to recruit colleagues to support equalities causes. There are plenty of natural diversity champions woven into the fabric of every housing association I have been involved with. The read across between the two must be one of the factors why people choose to work in housing. It’s a rare opportunity to affect societal change. It’s certainly a factor why I got involved (and stayed). And it’s not to say people from outside the sector don’t care too. It’s not difficult to move people from other walks of life with stories from the frontline of social housing.

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So how are housing associations doing on addressing equality and diversity? Let’s have a look at some evidence. As with other sectors, there is progress in some areas, but it’s uneven. The march of women in leadership roles is impressive, for example there is a 50%/50% split of Chief Executives in Welsh housing. How many sectors can say that? It’s not to say housing association can’t be macho however, I have had some interesting experiences in my career, sadly. And there are micro-pockets within some areas as construction (the development of new homes) and in technology where women (and sadly, enlightened attitudes) are sometimes under-represented.

The LGBT community is also represented in leadership, but the BAME community less so. To what extent this is entirely a function of how BAME communities are distributed is a conversation for a different day, but I have a suspicion more could be done on this. Where the sector has been conspicuously less successful is in two areas, in disability and in social class. It does have to be noted that this probably reflects wider social issues going on, but given that welfare reform and universal credit is particularly pointed at disability, mental health issues are skyrocketing and society is ageing (amongst other things!), this isn’t an encouraging development. This is my call to arms on this issue. Social housing needs to do more, and more than just some representation at the top.

Social-economic class (which some hope will become the 10th protected characteristic) is of course an enormously important area for social housing. I’m wary of being definitive, but it’s telling that at a recent conference I attended hardly any of the executives in the room got a reference to budget food from the 1970s. Hmm. As housing associations necessarily professionalise (it’s got a lot more technically complicated and let’s be honest, more professionally dangerous than in the early days) this challenge may become more acute. Long hours, the need to stay networked and the cycles and patterns of behaviours can lead to a disconnect with the communities we serve. My own lifestyle is reflective of that, and I must admit it’s all too possible to live in a bubble. This issue becomes particularly apparent as the sector generally moves to skills-based boards and the “traditional seat at the table” for tenants slowly diminishes. There is much debate about whether that is an effective way to achieve true representation, again not perhaps for this article. But if it is replaced, it needs to be by something at least as effective, if not more so. It’s more than upskilling a few individual stars.

Where housing associations are missing a trick is the relation of equalities and diversity to their drive to become more customer focused and their endeavours to put the customer at the heart of everything they do. Working on equalities and diversity — understanding the individual groups and their needs, and creating a respectful environment for everyone to thrive dovetails very neatly into that agenda. Sadly, however, these tracks of thought are often running in parallel and not in concert — the same conversations are being held in different meetings, if you like. Both will be made stronger if we better link them up.

Boards are starting to grapple with how they become more customer focussed, but the conversations at the Board level on equalities and diversity is less mature, on the whole. I think there needs to be more conversation about equality and diversity and the commitment to that at the Board level. As pressure comes in from austerity, financial uncertainty, and the need to monitor health and safety metrics post Grenfell, there is a danger that equalities slips even further down the agenda. In a culture of what gets monitored gets managed, resources are not going to be prioritised otherwise. Indeed, I believe there is some evidence that not much budget or operational airtime time is devoted to equalities and diversity already, and we have to be careful about the messages that sends.

Equalities and diversity efforts can also add to the cultural fabric of organisations, to improve and deepen its values. Done well it creates a more purposeful and nurturing environment for colleagues and communities to thrive. And the evidence is also abundantly clear that diversity of representation is one of the best ways to avoid falling into traps created by “group think”.

So, what marks out of ten shall we give to social housing? Some great progress in certain areas — find me more sectors with 50% female CEOs please! And plenty of history and heritage to work from. But it’s important that equality and diversity does not get lost in the next few years. There is more that housing associations can do though in all sorts of ways, particularly the links with governance and structure. Thinking about a fresh approach to equality and diversity is essential. Not only will so many business benefits will accrue but housing associations will become out of touch with society more generally otherwise. The danger of losing relevance is absolutely there, but I am also optimistic for the future. Housing associations are adept at spotting opportunities created in society through their inherent openness and collaboration, and their original purpose of tackling a deep-seated market failure is as important as ever. Let us work with the changes going on in society to create a stronger and more resilient sector. And for those outside the sector — I hope we can take the lesson from housing that all organisations need to front up to the issues and reconnect with their purpose and values to stay attuned with the big wide world out there.

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Experienced Chief Finance Officer -track record in Welsh social housing and third sector. Chartered Accountant (FCA BFP). Views my own - my space for blogging.

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