Celebrating International Women’s Day

Serena Jones is Director of Homes, Services and Communities at Coastal Housing Group. She shares with us her thoughts on diversity in the workplace.

Today is International Women’s Day, a day rooted in women’s suffrage and socialism. In many countries it is a national holiday and in others it is a day of protest or a celebration of womanhood. While the last 100 years has seen significant legislative advancement for women’s rights, there is a perception that women now enjoy full equality with men. Spoiler alert: we don’t. Women are still being paid less than our male counterparts, we remain outnumbered by men in most boardrooms and executive teams, we continue to be the primary homemakers for raising children and we experience domestic abuse at significantly higher rates than men. There is still much progress to be made.

In my career in housing, I have observed and experienced the multiple ways in which men and women behave differently in the workplace. I have always had an appetite to learn, expand my knowledge and develop my skills and in doing so, I’ve been honest about the areas I think I need to improve on. I remember early on in my management career sharing with a male colleague the feedback I had given to my boss about myself in my annual appraisal and he looked at me wide eyed. He said that it made no sense to tell the truth because you would get paid less, and he was right. He was my exact equal in my workplace and he got a higher pay award than me off the back of that appraisal. That was an ‘aha’ moment for me; was I creating my own glass ceiling by not playing the game properly? I felt like I’d never been told the rules but I was also conflicted – I wanted to remain authentic and honest but I didn’t want to be disadvantaged by that. I vowed to do everything I could to be the kind of boss who made it ok to talk about development needs and not penalise people for doing so. Interestingly, I didn’t query the appraisal system itself which I’ve now come to realise is the most monumental waste of time – especially if it aligns to performance related pay. If you want to perpetuate inequalities and lose three months of productivity every year while everybody fights about their ratings, it is the perfect tool for that. If you want people to do a good job, study how the work works, listen to what matters to the people who benefit from it and design it around value and purpose.

Another gendered experience I’ve had through my career is as a result of my almost pathological inability to tolerate injustice or inequality and my relentless focus on continually improving. This has meant that I have rattled some cages and, curiously, the vast majority of those most rattled have been men. I am aware of (some of) the nicknames I have been given as a result of my many assertive challenges which I won’t repeat here but I am sure you can imagine. Strong women who are articulate and unafraid to hold others to account can expect to be in for a rough ride at times and I am no exception to this. What I hope people also see is that I hold myself to account too and that when I make mistakes I am open about them. I am far from perfect. Some of my career, both in London and in Wales was in generating performance data, analysing performance and reporting through to senior teams and boards. I have experienced taking performance reports to the boardroom and infuriating senior managers to the point where they are shouting that the data must be wrong or silently seething at me for exposing the stuff they were trying to obscure. There are many occasions when I have had to have nerves of steel to deal with these kinds of situations but my answer was always the same – it’s your data, fix it. As Deming said “in God we trust, all others must bring data”.

I want to give a shout out to men on this day because the truth is; allies really matter. As a card carrying member of the LGBTQ community (yes, we have actual cards dontcha know), I appreciate every day the way many heterosexual folk demonstrate their support and that real change happens when we work together. All of us benefit from the richness and vibrancy of diversity (including neurodiversity), not just those of us in groups with ‘protected characteristics’. When I look around me at the crisis of toxic masculinity, the alarming rates of suicide amongst men and the difficulties many men have in sharing their fears, uncertainties and worries, I hold sexism largely responsible. The idea that men and women have roles to fulfil constrains us all, and I am beyond encouraged by the generation of young people who are casting aside those social norms and refusing to be any part of that binary. Gender fluid, neutral and non-binary identities are the most exciting iteration of our times and despite the current hostility being shown to trans people (mostly trans women) by a small number of vocal right wing feminists, it is clear that the times are changing and being on the right side of history matters now just as it did for other oppressed minorities throughout history.

You might wonder what all of this has to do with social housing. Well, as social purpose organisations it is important to be alive and attuned to the impact of sexism on women and men as well as the effects of transphobia and homophobia. Similarly, if we are blind to the impact of racism, religious intolerance or any other form of discrimination or prejudice we will fail to be good employers and we will fail to serve citizens and communities effectively. We have to challenge our own biases and assumptions actively, listen to understand what matters to people and take care not to strip people of their own agency and autonomy in the process.

To hear more on the importance of diversity in housing, listen to the latest episode of Around the Houses podcast.