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Article citation: Kulbir Shergill, (2011) "Genesis places gender equality at the core of cultural change", Strategic HR Review, Vol. 10 Iss: 6, pp. -
This year Genesis Housing Association, one of the largest social landlords in the UK, was selected as a Times Top 50 employer for women. While we were proud of being selected, Genesis is the first housing association to have been listed, we are aware that gender equality is a big issue for the social housing sector. We are part of a sector where over 60 percent of employees and customers are female, but only 14 percent of the 100 largest housing associations are headed by a female chief executive.
Last year we saw the introduction of the Equality Act in the UK, and while legislation has made great strides to banish workplace discrimination women are still not represented on the boards of around 20 percent of Britain’s biggest companies. The Women on Boards review launched by Lord Davies at the start of 2011 called for a greater number of women in senior management, with organizations needing to break down barriers that can exist in the workplace to enable everyone to fulfill their full potential.
It cannot be overstated just how much diversity in the workplace matters. Genesis, like all other housing associations, is here to provide homes for its residents and to provide them with the services they want in the way they want, and to do that we have to understand who they are and the services that they require. Looking at how diversity impacts on our customers helps us to understand their needs and this makes diversity integral to our business processes. As a large percentage of residents in social housing are female we need female staff in place to understand their needs and make decisions that will have a positive impact in meeting service delivery needs of customers, delivered by an efficient business.
It is a mistake to think that the answer is to employ as many women as possible. What makes the difference is the diversity at the top of the organization, creating a greater “diversity of thought” so the right decisions are made. A senior team dominated by men cannot possibly understand the different backgrounds of all of its residents. When Genesis first started to look at our staff profiles back in 2008 we saw that only around 14 percent of our senior managers were female. We needed to understand why this was the case when more than 50 percent of our staff were female and we had in place flexible working policies and learning and development programs available to everyone.
So why aren’t more women progressing into senior management roles? If we are going to improve diversity at the top of an organization, there needs to be a greater awareness of the barriers that may exist – whether they are intentional or not. A lack of flexible working is an obvious barrier that needs to be challenged. Too often, women who have progressed in their career face the tough decision of whether to leave or to take a step back when they decide to start a family. Sadly, the old fashioned perception still exists in some places that flexible working is a lazy way to work. Creating a culture that supports a work-life balance will help to recruit and retain women. It is not enough to do the minimum and to comply with legal obligations; the procedures should be in place to encourage flexible working and help support staff who need to balance the needs of family life with their careers.
At a very basic level there is the cost implication to consider. Replacing every female member of staff that leaves due to the lack of flexible working opportunities is expensive. Added to that, there is the cost of not delivering a service correctly. As mentioned, a greater proliferation of women in senior positions helps ensure that the decisions are made that help all customers no matter what their background.
An example is the way Genesis delivers its maintenance services to its properties. We know that female residents from certain religious background will not allow male members of staff into the property without their husband being present. An awareness of this means that we ensure female staff visit the property and deliver the right service the first time. By having women in senior management we have increased our awareness of issues such as these which prevent us wasting money by having to return to the property.
To improve diversity at the top, greater awareness is needed of the types of training and support to deal with these challenges. We held a seminar for women across the organization to take a look at what was working for other organizations in recruiting and retaining women at senior management levels and to hear from our staff what the issues were for them.
We had an overwhelming response from women across the organization. Workshops on the day highlighted a number of factors that made us realize that just having the right policies was actually not the answer. For example, if managers did not understand the benefits of flexible working to them and their team members they were unlikely to advocate it as a way of working. Many women felt that the training and development programs on offer did not always meet their needs – they needed courses that helped to build up their confidence, courses that helped them to start planning their careers.
Also invited to the seminar were a number of senior male managers, as we wanted to know what the issues for them were in terms of supporting the development of female staff. What we learnt was that they did not always understand the barriers that women faced – because they were not the barriers that they themselves faced. We realized that the culture of the organization and leadership on gender equality were the foundations to increasing the number of women in senior management and retaining them.
We put in place a number of initiatives including a series of learning seminars for women, mentoring opportunities and a campaign to highlight the benefits of work-life balance issues to staff and to the business. The learning seminars included building confidence and developing impact and confident interview skills. What has helped make these processes a success is having a high profile initiative with the executive team and the chief executive championing gender equality and sending out clear messages on why this issue is important. In fact, increasing gender equality became a business KPI, making it a performance issue for all those responsible for recruiting.
Of course training is available for everyone; we are just recognizing that for many women there are still barriers in balancing home and work and there are issues around having the confidence to put themselves forward for opportunities and knowing that they are going to be taken seriously. Our male gender equality champions have played a key role in getting this issue to be taken seriously, whether it has been our chief executive speaking about his commitment or male managers who have taken on the role of mentors to women who want to progress their careers.
The impact of this work has been very positive for us. We started with 14 percent of our senior managers being women in 2008, and in 2010 it was almost 40 percent. We have made considerable headway in changing the profile of the senior management team, creating visible role models for women who are just starting out in their careers. However we know that a workplace culture that sustains gender equality is what will continue in making this a positive story so we are about to launch a number of new learning programs for women in senior positions and create opportunities for them to network at senior levels both internally and externally, as well as a culture change program into which diversity issues are interwoven.
Genesis is working hard to make these changes happen for the benefit of our customers and our staff.
Based at Genesis Housing Association.
Kulbir Shergill is Head of Diversity and Inclusiveness at Genesis Housing Association and in charge of leading the implementation of the Genesis diversity strategy. She joined Genesis in 2009 and previously spent nine years as head of equality strategy at Nacro, the National crime reduction charity. She has over 15 years’ experience working with equality and diversity issues to ensure service provision is accessible and appropriate to all. She is also experienced in supporting the development and recruitment of a diverse range of staff. Kulbir Shergill can be contacted at: email@example.com