BME housing staff ‘losing out in restructures’
Published by 24publishing for 24dash.com in Featured and also in Central Government, Communities, Housing, Local Government
BME housing staff ‘losing out in restructures’
Senior housing professionals from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background are leaving the sector, "losing out" in restructures and are not adequately represented at chief executive level, a panel of experts has warned.
With no BME leaders cited in 24housing magazine’s power players list – voted by a cross section of 200 housing chief executives – published in April, it provided the perfect tonic to debate the issue at a National Housing Federation (NHF) conference fringe event in September.
The roundtable, sponsored by British Gas and vacant property specialists SitexOrbis, was organised by The Forum – a specific networking group aimed at BME housing professionals set up 10 years ago.
Opening the discussion, Forum chair Farooq Mohammed said some social housing providers have been amongst the vanguard in pushing the equality agenda. He said the discussion was timely with the publication of the Equality Act and, most recently, the Public Services Act placing obligations on public sector organisations to think about how representative they are in delivering services to their communities.
Chaired by 24housing magazine editor Jon Land, the panel agreed that although there was a willingness to bring better representation in the social housing sector, it wasn’t quite happening.
Olu Olanrewaju, divisional director at Genesis, warned that although good progress has been made in increasing representation of BME staff, there were reasons to be concerned.
He said: “We all believe the willingness and ethos is there for this sector to be an exemplar of diversity but, for whatever reason, it’s just not happening. I think things are getting worse. I know a number of senior BME people are leaving the sector. I think that’s a big problem. In order to encourage people from below, those from BME backgrounds need to see people excelling above them to inspire them that despite the challenges, it is possible. I’ve seen senior people opting out of the sector and not opting out in a very positive way about their experiences of working in the housing sector.”
Another of the participants – who had worked at housing organisations involved in a number of restructures – said he had found that those who tended to “lose out” in restructures were middle managers from a BME background.
Courses and networking
David Orr, chief executive of the NHF, said a leadership course the it launched, which was particularly promoted to both BME and female staff, had seen low levels of take up.
He said: “We did quite well getting women and a smaller number of housing staff from BME backgrounds. I think the reason for that was that the organisations that were able to or willing to invest in that kind of leadership programme tended to be bigger organisations and didn’t necessarily see people from BME backgrounds as the people who were at that level of leadership or management who would benefit from it.
“The smaller BME associations i think looked at it and said “we can’t afford to do that’ or ‘we’re not prepared to invest that amount in our leaders because it doesn’t look good when it’s being paid for by our tenants’.”
Housing Diversity Network chief Clifton Robinson said he had encountered similar problems with take-up on mentoring programmes for the next generation of chief executives. “In terms of the numbers of BME and disabled participants, it’s been pretty low,” he said.
Aniekan Umoren, customer services director at Metropolitan, said better representation of BME staff would have to go further than just compliance through organisations’ strategies, policies and programmes. “What we have to acknowledge is that to make more progress we’re going to have to do a bit more - we have to be honest about how the sector works. It works through networks, through profile, connections and word of mouth. From personal experience it’s really difficult to break into the networks of the movers and shakers and that’s the reality. I think as leaders we need to think about pragmatic ways of coming out of the comfort zone and doing something that pragmatically takes one or two people forward.”
Umoren, who has worked previously at Places for People, Newham and Basildon councils added that whenever she’s been appointed to a senior position, she’s tended to see one or two more BME faces coming through. “The network, word of mouth and discussion is how it gets done,” she said. “Just giving BME people that idea that they’re welcome in this environment is really important.”
Susmita Sen, executive director of Network Stadium Housing Association, echoed that point adding that networking had proved successful for her. “I got in through a networking opportunity at a Chartered Institute of Housing dinner. I was sat next to the chief executive of one of the G15 and she took me under her wing, sponsored and mentored me. Those networking opportunities do open doors. So perhaps we should think about creating those opportunities.”
Umoren added that it was vital to “keep the conversation going”. She said: "For my organisation, one of the things I really appreciate is that we keep having the conversation. It comes right from the top – there’s a sense of “let’s talk about it and challenge it”.