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Diversity challenge

Sponsored by Mitie

Inside Housing, in association with Mitie, looked at the lack of gender diversity at senior levels in housing, in a panel discussion with senior women in the sector

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Inside Housing, in association with Mitie, looked at the lack of gender diversity at senior levels in housing, in a panel discussion with senior women in the sector #ukhousing

The panel discussion at the Inclusive Futures Summit with Inside Housing editor-in-chief Emma Maier (second left) before a packed audience

In association with:

Only nine of the 34 chief executives appointed since 2015 by the 100 largest housing associations are women, according to an Inside Housing survey published earlier this year.

Terrie Alafat, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, pointed out at the time of the survey that this isn’t because the social housing sector as a whole is lacking in diversity.

“Housing is actually more diverse than average,” she said. “But at the top of our organisations, on our senior teams and boards, it’s a different story.”

This lack of gender diversity is a theme picked up at an Inside Housing breakfast briefing, held in association with Mitie at the Inclusive Futures Summit in Manchester, in a conversation chaired by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Emma Maier.

The session is focused on the career experiences of the all-female panel, as well as their thoughts about how the sector as a whole could promote greater gender diversity.

Opening the discussion, Ms Maier says that a separate Inside Housing investigation into harassment in the workplace, published earlier in the summer, “made for difficult reading”, as did the pay gaps revealed by the magazine’s annual salary survey.

“We wondered whether this was a moment in time to improve the gender balance,” she continues. “The session today should focus on what we can and should do differently.”

Vicky Fordham-Lewis, newly appointed managing director of Mitie Property Services, starts by describing her career path, which took her from being a lawyer and qualified arbitrator to becoming Mitie’s MD.

Ms Fordham-Lewis reflects on the different stages her career has gone through. “I went to night school to get a law degree, which was challenging as I was working full-time. I went to a land law session and knew that this was what I wanted to do, because I always had a passion for property. I then went on to get a job with Redrow Homes,” she says.

“I was in the customer care department and it typified the industry at the time, with women in the back office. But I was quite fortunate in having a female MD, which was unusual in those days.”

Her career took her from the construction to the property sector at Countryside and eventually to Mitie.

“I was trying to figure out if things got better for me along the way or if I just got tougher,” she reflects. “What I did realise very early on was that if I was going to be successful and in order to be taken seriously, I had to know so much more than my male counterparts.”

Be relentless

Ms Fordham-Lewis has been a mentor for younger women, which she says is really important in improving diversity in the workplace, noting that working with a female MD early in her career meant that she saw this as the norm. “It’s only later when I went to other organisations that I realised that this was unusual.”

She adds: “As women, we shouldn’t be afraid to negotiate or afraid to ask. We don’t naturally do that.”

Sasha Deepwell, the North West chair of Women in Social Housing and chief executive of Irwell Valley Housing Association, picks up on the theme of confidence. “Women will often substitute other things for being bold in the workplace. I spent two years at night school while I had a two-year-old at home, to become an expert in construction project management and get a RICS [Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors] qualification. In hindsight, I do wonder what on earth I was thinking.

“As women, we substitute a lack of confidence for other things, such as lots of technical knowledge. My advice would be: be relentless. We are talking about change and that will take decades.”

Diversity challenge 2

Emma Solomons, customer services director and deputy chief executive, Crown Simmons

Change the story

Emma Solomons, customer services director and deputy chief executive at Crown Simmons, notes she has been given support by both the men and the women with whom she worked. “I was part of a senior management team in property services at A2 Dominion, where everyone around me really valued my comments and challenges.

“I then made a conscious decision to move to a smaller organisation and be close to home so I could also manage my family life while having a career.”

When it comes to shifting the culture of an organisation so that it values gender diversity, Ms Fordham-Lewis believes it’s about leading by example. She adds that while it is easy to get fixated on statistics, ultimately it’s about finding the right person for the role. Part of the solution to having a truly diverse workforce lies in ensuring all CVs are anonymised.

Diversity challenge 3

Vicky Fordham-Lewis, managing director, Mitie Property Services

“I do know that as a woman, despite all my experience, I would be put at the bottom of the pile,” she explains. “I truly believe that’s still the case.”

Ms Solomons adds that it is important to advertise vacancies in the right places, before anonymising CVs is even considered.

Ms Deepwell notes that as leaders, it’s not just about being a role model, it’s also about working out how to create the leaders of tomorrow.

She says: “It grieves me that we have to have these sector initiatives. We were talking about ‘smashing the glass ceiling’ back in the early 1990s.

“At my own organisation, we are trying to change the story in terms of our imagery and who we are listening to – it’s not rocket science. We go out and we talk to our customers. What issues are they facing?”

Diversity challenge 4

Sasha Deepwell, North West chair, Women in Social Housing and chief executive, Irwell Valley Housing Association


She goes on to argue that clients also have a role to play in improving the situation: “The gender pay gap is the worst in construction. The question is: how can we influence that as clients?”

Ms Fordham-Lewis picks up on the issue of maternity leave and the findings of research carried out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission: “I was outraged to see that more than 40% of employers see maternity costs as a burden. Furthermore, 11% of women returning to work after maternity leave are subsequently made redundant.”

The session ends on a positive note. “It’s really important to collaborate,” says Ms Deepwell. “I do believe that despite the statistics we can change things.”

Inclusive Futures

Inclusive Futures

Inside Housing’s Inclusive Futures campaign aims to promote and celebrate diversity and inclusion.

We are pledging to publish diversity audits of our own coverage.

We are also committed to proactively promoting positive role models.

We will do this through the pages of Inside Housing. But we will also seek to support other publications and events organisations to be more inclusive.

Our Inclusive Futures Bureau will provide a database of speakers and commentators from all backgrounds, for use by all media organisations.

We are also challenging readers to take five clear steps to promote diversity, informed by the Chartered Institute of Housing’s diversity commission and the Leadership 2025 project.

Click here to read more or to sign up for more information


Inside Housing calls on organisations to sign up to an inclusive future by taking five steps:

Prioritise diversity and inclusion at the top: commitment and persistence from chief executives, directors and chairs in setting goals and monitoring progress.

Collect data on the diversity of your board, leadership and total workforce and publish annually with your annual report. Consider gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, age, and representation of tenants on the board.

Set aspirational targets for recruitment to the executive team, board and committees from under-represented groups.

Challenge recruiting staff and agencies to ensure that all shortlists include candidates from under-represented groups.

Make diversity and inclusion a core theme in your talent management strategy to ensure you support people from under-represented groups to progress their careers.



of housing association chief executives are female


of housing association executives have a disability


of housing association board members are LGBT

Women make up 46% of the UK workforce, but Inside Housing research found that they are under-represented on housing association boards (36%), executive teams (39%) and among chief executives (34%).

Almost a fifth of working-age adults have a disability (18%), yet associations reported only 1% of executives and 4.5% of board members with a disability. Many were unable to provide details.

Nationwide, 14% of the working-age population come from a BME background, climbing to 40% in London and Birmingham. Yet our research found that 6.8% of board members identified as BME, compared with 4.5% of executives.

Statistics on representation of LGBT people in the workforce are in short supply, but official statistics suggest that 2% of the total UK population identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, rising to 4.1% for 16 to 24-year-olds. Our survey found that 1.6% of board members and 10 executives were LGBT – but most organisations were unable to provide figures.

Click here to read the full research

The Inside Housing Diversity Audit: how diverse has our coverage been?

The Inside Housing Diversity Audit: how diverse has our coverage been?

The media plays a key role in championing diverse role models, so we designed a project to measure Inside Housing’s track record.



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