Celebrating women in social housing

Lucy Malarkey, 17 March 2022

Women’s History Month is a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society. This year I want to take the opportunity to celebrate the contribution of all of those women working in social housing who are bringing their expertise and passion to help drive the sector forward, for the benefit of their colleagues, their organisations and their local communities.

Across the social housing sector, there are many extraordinary and inspirational women who work across many disciplines and at all levels. Women play a critical role in our sector and their achievements are something to celebrate.

Whilst women have made important gains in representation throughout the sector in the last few years, we’re still a long way from equality, particularly at a senior leadership level and the housing sector needs to act now to support, retain and help further advance women in their careers.

The NHF's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) highlights females make up 57% of the workforce in the housing association sector but when it comes to leadership the number of females in the top jobs falls. At the executive and board level respectively only 45% and 42% of positions are taken by females. It’s critically important as a sector we work to improve gender equality and become more representative.

Reflecting on my own career in social housing I can confidently say that whilst much has been done in the past 30 years to further gender equality and inclusion, there is still more we can, and should, be doing.

My journey into social housing

My career in housing started by accident rather than intention. A role in social housing was not on my radar after I completed my politics degree in the early 90’s. In fact, it was so far off my radar I decided not to revise for that module in preparation for my final exams.

It was a chance conversation with a friend and mentor that had me apply for a housing trainee role with a local authority and once I started, I quickly became hooked, I knew I’d found my niche.

I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity throughout my career to work with many inspirational leaders – both male and female – who inspired me with their belief, passion and drive. Without doubt, their leadership taught me a lot but it’s perhaps the less than positive experiences I’ve had along the way that have taught me the most.

In the late 90’s I was lured by a progression opportunity to move to a new organisation. I knew almost immediately that I had made a mistake. Despite the fact that this was now 1999 my new boss behaved like he was in 70’s, I can recall being told to just ‘flutter my eye lashes’ at a certain councillor and we’d get the decision we wanted. There are other stories but too horrendous to share.

I stayed less than a year and during that time I really wasn’t myself, I put my head down, I wasn’t engaged in the organisation and just did what needed to be done. What got me through this difficult time was my support network; my friends, my colleagues, and my family.

This experience taught me three valuable lessons that have stayed with me ever since:

  1. The grass isn’t always greener - don’t take good leadership for granted.
  2. Values alignment and a sense of belonging are so important.
  3. Your network is what will get you through the hard times.

Because of this experience, I have always been an advocate of the value of networking, whether formal or informal and earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to demonstrate my commitment to networking in my appointment as the new Managing Director for Women in Social Housing (WISH).

WISH - network for women in social housing

WISH is a network for women, a community offering encouragement and support for professionals working across the housing sector at every stage of their career. Operating across the country WISH organise welcoming networking events that provide learning, support and inspiration for all who attend.  

Informal networks of friends and family are without a doubt invaluable but professional networks have the added value of insider knowledge and sector-specific insight to drive progress and development throughout organisations.

As I reflect on my career journey, I can’t help but wonder how my choices may have been different if I’d had the opportunity back then to be part of a network like WISH. But, we can’t go backwards and as the as the wonderful Maya Angelou said, you can only “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

As Managing Director of WISH, I’m committed to doing better, continuing the work to attract female talent into social housing and creating environments for women that are welcoming, inclusive and diverse.