Women and Leadership in Housing Post-Pandemic - What's Changed?
In 2018 I wrote an article for Housing Futures magazine on the disparity between the number of women and men in housing leadership roles. This was pre-pandemic of course, and due to so many transformational work practices taking place over the past two years, it would be right to assume that things have changed. But have they?
Before Covid had a chance to rear its head, women were already struggling to gain a foothold in higher level positions in the housing industry, and there were several reasons identified, outlined in the original article. As a brief overview, the industry's close connections to the construction, asset management and repairs and maintenance industries (traditionally associated with 'male' centric roles) had been a genuinely inhibiting factor.
Diving into the chasm of a male dominated industry
I'll never forget the first time I was asked to speak to a large audience, at a regional housing conference, to a room full of (white, male, middle aged) asset managers, the majority of whom upon hearing the content of my talk (encouraging more diversity into the industry) immediately crossed their collective arms, grunted and looked out the window. This was always going to be a tough crowd, but despite my best efforts to remain steadfast and focused, found my confidence completely evaporating as I attempted to share my research and possible solutions to a fervently disinterested audience, and if a hole had appeared in the ground at that particular point, I would have gladly given Tom Daley a run for his money and dived in head first.
Amongst this maroon of housing management heavyweights, there were just two women in the audience that day, both of whom came up to me afterwards to offer me encouragement and praise about the content, along with my very supportive male colleague, who was also speaking that day. Hopefully, things have improved marginally since then!
"The problem" they said "is that these people are a big part of the problem you are trying to address."
Technology and STEM-based learning pathways have also played a large part in failing to address the lack of future female leaders in housing, due to the noticeable gap in these much needed skillsets across all housing leadership roles growing wider, combined with the robust attempts in recent years to encourage more girls and women into STEM-based careers still only resulting in a 5% female head count in leadership tech roles across the UK (PCW).
Bearing the brunt of challenges at home and in the workplace
Throughout the pandemic, it has been women, and particularly women of colour, who have suffered the repercussions of its work and career challenges, and despite leadership and work practices transforming almost unrecognisably since the beginning of the outbreak in many positive ways, the statistics show that women have been more negatively impacted by layoffs, furloughs, work and homelife juggling/responsibilities, with a notable increases in domestic and racial abuse (McKinsey, Women in the Workplace).
To add to this, many women have been forced to take a back seat in their career progression, with a large proportion having to reduce work hours and set back their professional development in order to manage all their extra familial responsibilities (the majority of home schooling responsibilities, working from home and house management have been left to women in most familial settings), and more women overall losing out on retained positions as organisations contend with reduced workload implementation. This has all been compounded by industries that are predominantly female weighted having to be put on hold repeatedly due to lockdown measures.
Driving change and creating opportunities to progress
So what does all this mean for women transitioning into leadership positions across the housing industry, and what can we do to improve the general outlook as we move forward? Well, as a starter for ten, we need more women on boards. The latest Housing Diversity Survey from Inside Housing shows no change in the 41 percent of women who make up boards of those organisations who participated, and a slight increase from their 2019 survey of women in executive roles from 40% to 42%. Although it is encouraging to see the numbers have not dropped in light of the above statistics, it’s the up-and-coming future female leaders, rather than the already established leaders, who will be struggling to forge their career pathway and navigate their way upwards.
Fiona Fletcher-Smith, Chief Executive at L&Q, agrees with the importance of more female board representatives, but also emphasises the importance of creating more promotional opportunities for women who are still grappling with these tricky environments, so they do not end up missing out on roles and positions that are easier for others to attain due to their environmental circumstances.
“40% of our senior leadership group, which includes executives and their direct reports, are women and 60% of our internal promotions went to women last year and the year before. However, it isn’t just about senior positions. True access to opportunity means erasing any barriers women face at work.” (Fiona Fletcher-Smith, Inside Housing)
I’ve been researching and writing about transformational leadership for several years, and it was already becoming clear that effective leadership was becoming more progressive in terms of the typical traits and behaviours previously associated with great leaders. Empathy, emotional awareness, guided autonomous people management, flexible time management and allowing space for people to fail in order to succeed were already exciting developments. Typically though, these characteristics and behaviour had been associated more with female leaders, and were not considered masculine traits. As we come full circle and (hopefully) navigate our way out of the pandemic, these leadership traits are now among the most desirable for every great leader to have no matter the gender, and have proven to be the most successful characteristics for leading through crisis and change.
It’s not a great stretch to imagine that many of those who have taken on the biggest challenges throughout the pandemic and come out stronger and more resilient as a result will likely be carrying with them the precise experiences and skillsets needed to lead our industries, and our people, through future transformational change. We just need to create the opportunities for them to do so.