Does the housing industry need more “nasty women”?

It’s a sad reflection of the housing industry in 2016 that the very fact of an all-female panel is worthy of comment.  Last week I was lucky enough to be on one (at the NHF London conference) and not only was it noted by the audience, it got several further mentions by others throughout the day.  An all-female panel!  A rare sight to behold…

The housing sector is growing ever more diverse, in terms of gender (and ethnicities), and it has long been a problem that what is reflected back at us – from panels, membership organisations and the media - is not representative of this.  In fact, I think it is something many of us have come to reluctantly take for granted.

It is always interesting to understand the different views on this question.  I have challenged staff at several events and organisations whose panels or materials are male dominated, and had two distinct responses.  The first is “Yes, it’s a real issue, we are really trying to address it.”  The second goes something along the lines of “We put people on panels because they’re suitable, not because of their gender.”  The former I have more sympathy for, but I still query whether well-meaning organisations are doing enough.  I find it hard to imagine there is a topic in UK housing where it wouldn’t be possible to find a woman (or someone from a BME community) with some degree of expertise if you really tried hard enough. 

The latter response just leaves me (perhaps naively) open mouthed in amazement.  No one would suggest a panel member, or someone being sought for expert opinion in the press, should be chosen if they don’t know what they’re talking about.  But representation is self-perpetuating.  For example, the more women attend events, read the industry press, and see only male faces and views reflected back at them the more intimidating it is to put themselves forward for these things.  

In other areas of life this is being addressed.  The Parliament Project is a growing a campaign to encourage women to run for office in the UK, and at the moment is encouraging men and women to send e-postcards to women they know to encourage them to stand for office – recognising that self-belief is a large part of what holds women back.  The Women’s Room was set up in protest at the lack of female voices in the media – women with expertise in any field can register at TWR and when the media are looking for spokespeople, they have a ready-made database of female voices.

The housing industry has lots of great female groups, like Women in Property, which mainly exist as a chance to network and are undoubtedly helpful with women’s careers.  But I wonder whether, on the issue of getting women to progress more visibly in the industry, it’s time to focus on a more campaigning approach as well.  Perhaps, like Hillary Clinton’s legions of female fans, we need a “nasty women” moniker - we need to actively challenge some of the approaches of colleagues and organisations in the industry and not be scared that if we do so, we will be labelled as ‘difficult’. 

If we can’t get ourselves organised in this way, then we shouldn’t be surprised when all female panels remain as elusive as ever.

This article was written by Anna Sabine-Newlyn, Chief Executive at Meeting Place Communications.