The power of staff networks – Black History Month 2023

Elaine Lewis, 25 October 2023

Diversity in the housing sector has been the subject of conferences, events, campaigns, and board meetings. Lots of organisations are promising change and making the right noises. But has all this discussion shifted the dial?

Black History Month is a time to celebrate the contributions of Black people to the UK and highlights the unsung heroes who have made the world a better place for others. It’s also a time to salute our Black brothers and sisters who have excelled against the odds to become CEOs, MPs, Board members and Directors. But whilst their successes are heartening, and give hope to younger generations, they are not evidence of a problem that has been solved. Promoting and embracing diversity is a shared responsibility – everyone needs to play their part.

We know that Black, Asian and minority ethnic people make up a significant proportion of social housing tenants in the UK. The drive to make housing associations more representative of the communities we serve is rooted as much in the quest to deliver better services as it is in the wider issue of racial equality.

New data, same conversations

Data is a great starting point to raise awareness and resolve disparities. We wouldn’t build a block of flats without understanding the data around the profile of the area, or the metrics around how affordable it’s going to be for people. This is about how workforces, and how diverse people interact, as that data needs to be married with an understanding of the experiences of our residents and the services we provide.

As a sector, ethnic diversity among leaders in social housing falls short of where it should be. Black people make up 10% of our workforce but only 3% of executives, while our Asian colleagues make up at 5% with only 1% at executive level. This begs the question - are we doing our best? 

From Beveridge to Scarman, housing reports from the last 80 years leave a trail of neglected recommendations in their wake. It’s now up to us, as a sector, to act with deeds not just words. We need to open pathways into leadership roles that address the glass ceiling for colleagues from ethnic minority groups. That means breaking down those barriers that exist in the workplace and enabling everyone to reach their potential, from staff starting out in their career to those on leadership teams.

The power of staff networks – first hand

If the destination is still some way off, then the next question must be how to get there. As an EDI specialist, I firmly believe that staff networks are powerful vehicles for change. Our sector is starting to understand how they directly feed into strategic objectives and lead to accelerated change. From championing inclusion and empowering members to challenge inequalities, to creating a sense of belonging where colleagues feel valued and are able to take part in open dialogue, allyship and collaboration.

We know that the work involved in chairing a network is rewarding, but we must remember who it is at the helm – Black, Asian and minority ethnic colleagues. Often the burden of education and progressing change falls on those who have experience of the inequalities they are working to eradicate.

So, we are talking about challenging work, which resonates on a deeply personal level, the fruits of which may not be seen immediately. Spaces like UNIFY’s staff networking forum are therefore essential, fostering a safe space for network chairs to support and learn from each other.

UNIFY was formed by people of colour to make sure the voices of diverse colleagues in the social housing sector are heard. In 2016 staff network groups from founding members Clarion, Notting Hill, Peabody and L&Q came together to improve the under representation of ethnically diverse staff.

Staff networks may start with as little as three people and can be formal or informal. Formal groups can be beneficial as they are more likely to get buy in from leaders and additional resources. Chairs need the right tools to lead, and this also calls for a more formal offer to support their development. UNIFY offer workshops that focus on how to influence effectively, a vital skill for networks leads who may not always feel like they have authority.

UNIFY Network lead Rosalyn Springer says: "These workshops create a space to support people to harness their talents when engaging with colleagues, to provide them with the tools to lead with heart and authority, and to challenge their organisations using stories, experiences, and data. As well as supporting employees to upskill, these workshops bring like-minded people together, amplifying change through greater connection and collaboration."

During my time as Chair of L&Q’s ethnicity network, Kaleidoscope, I have grown and developed in different ways. I have gained new skills in public speaking, and experienced a significant increase in confidence.

An award-winning network

As the chair of Kaleidoscope, the winner of the G15 Ethnicity in Housing Awards 2023, it’s encouraging to look back on our journey and achievements. Kaleidoscope challenged our leaders to do better by putting on awareness workshops. As a result, we have seen a shift in representation at senior level and gained the trust and respect of our members and the wider business.

Much progress has been made, but we can’t get complacent. We need to create the conditions for the next generation of Black leaders to rise up and reach their potential. UNIFY offers mentorship programmes, networking opportunities, and professional development resources to support the career growth of Black employees and promote equal access to opportunities. Our LeadershipNOW! Programme, partnered with Gatenby Sanderson, brings together the opportunity for participants from ethnic minority groups to explore career progression and leadership development through a blend of workshops, coaching, leadership profiling and career conversations.

I am proud to be Black. It is the driver behind why I do what I do, why I push on in the face of adversity, and why I work to ensure that all ethnicities are treated fairly and with respect. Being part of Kaleidoscope and UNIFY has been transformative – and I would encourage others passionate about diversity and inclusion to join a staff network.