What a pivotal year 2020 has been for shining a spotlight on discrimination and provoking discussion around equality, inclusivity, and diversity.
Seismic events such as the tragic killing of George Floyd and resurgent movements such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ have all come to the fore – and the housing sector has taken notice.
Housing Digital has teamed up with the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) for a series of monthly #housingdiversitystories with sector leaders from a range of backgrounds.
In this instalment, we talk with Denise Fowler about her journey from a child of homeless parents to becoming the head of Women’s Pioneer Housing.
HD: How did you get into housing?
DF: For me, housing is a really personal thing. My family were homeless when I was born. My mum was 19 and my dad was 21, and he’d had to leave the merchant navy when he realised my mum was pregnant. They got married really quickly, and they had arranged that, when I was born, they’d stay with my dad’s parents.
On the day I came out of hospital, when mum brought me back to my dad’s flat, there was a row and they were kicked out. So they were kicked out on the streets with nowhere to go, with a newborn baby. My nan and my grandad on my mum’s side put them up for a couple of nights, but they didn’t have a spare room.
This was the 1960s before the homelessness legislation so local councils had no obligation to help them find a home. Many private landlords refused to house people with young children.
They ended up renting the front room of a one-bed flat from an old man who spent all his time in his bedroom. The room was very cramped and the only access to the bathroom was through the landlord’s bedroom. As a result there was an I was badly scalded. I nearly died.
“Without that home we would not have stood a chance – and that is the reality for so many people today”
When I came out of hospital our family was still not a priority for social housing so we moved all the time as my parents looked for jobs and a home. We lived in a caravan on a garage forecourt when my parents got jobs as petrol pump attendants and then in a succession of short term lets.
It took a long while before they finally got a council house when I was seven. And by that time I think we’d moved 11 times. That council home in Plumstead, South London gave my family security. By this time I had two younger brothers and we could make friends and settle at school.
Safe, secure, affordable housing is what enabled us to do well at school and then build our careers. Without that home we would not have stood a chance and that is the reality for so many people today…
HD: Have you always worked within an inclusive environment?
DF: No, not at all. All the places I’ve worked have reflected the society that we’re in. When I first left university, which was in the eighties, it was still perfectly legal to sack someone for being a lesbian.
So, there were various places that I chose not to work because I knew from talking to other people and also just looking at their culture I would not have been welcome. Lots of city firms for example had dress codes and their female trainees were usually very beautiful, very well-groomed women with long hair, heels and a skirt and I was never going to fit into that…
…the legal profession, certainly when I was in it, lagged behind a lot of other industries in London about its assumptions around sex, class, gender, homophobia.
I felt the civil service probably the most class-ridden organisation I’ve ever worked for. I made some really good friends and I enjoyed lots of my work there, but there were lots of times when I felt excluded. I certainly wasn’t invited in all the guys-down-the-pub-after-work things.
And I did have that experience of talking in meetings and it would be completely ignored, and then a few minutes later some guy would say it and it would be a wonderful idea. I got better at dealing with that and finding a way of being assertive, but it felt like talking in code a lot of the time. It felt like I was constricting myself to fit a model that didn’t work.
I’ve actually found the housing sector the most inclusive sector that I’ve worked in.
HD: Has the pandemic made people reevaluate how they perceive certain job roles?
DF: When we’ve talked about infrastructure in the past, we’ve talked very much about physical infrastructure, roads, buildings, schools, hospitals, things like that. I think what the pandemic has showed is that the social infrastructure, and particularly the care infrastructure, allows society to function. And if we don’t have people carrying out those caring responsibilities and looking after people, then we collapse.
We should value that work and really think about how we develop that infrastructure and make sure it’s there, because the initial lockdown means that people who were doing that caring, some of them – if it was within families with children, for example, or grandparents – they couldn’t provide that care, and suddenly parents who were both working full time were left in a really difficult position.
So, the economy functions on a lot of unpaid care, and if we valued it in the same way we did physical infrastructure things would be different.
“I did have that experience of talking in meetings and it would be completely ignored, and then a few minutes later some guy would say it and it would be a wonderful idea”
There is work here for the housing sector too. We don’t value support services enough and we over value commercial and financial skills. I know because I used to be the lead lawyer for procurement in DWP.
Honestly, if you have the skills to negotiate the benefit system then there is no reason why you cannot manage procurement or consider commercial options. Work based gender segregation in the housing sector makes up a significant part of the gender pay gap.
HD: What have been the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?
DF: I think developing self-awareness and getting support when you need it and continuing to develop has been the biggest challenge actually. And finding other people who can help you move on and up and develop.
I wish I’d known more about that when I first started. I felt like it was all my problem and I needed to sort it out. It was my fault every time things weren’t working out. And actually some of the time it really wasn’t. It was direct or indirect discrimination. I knew that in theory but I didn’t know how that felt in person and how that could impact your confidence.
I have worked through it, and I have had lots of support from other people who have helped me. But it’s also allowed me to think about where I’m happiest working and what I value in my career.
HD: Who has been your biggest inspiration?
DF: There’s been different people at different stages…
…I really liked working with Baroness Scotland when she was Attorney General. She was a brilliant Attorney General. I liked working with Yvette Cooper. Very direct, very bright, didn’t suffer fools gladly, was great fun to work with.
Nick Bowles I really liked when he was Planning minister, and he did one of the things that I think is really important for ministers about accountability. He would always seek advice from a large group of people. He would discuss any issue with us all, and then at the end of it he would say, okay, so I’ve taken on all this advice and I’ve decided to do ‘this’. And it might not have been the preferred choice for the people around the table. But it would have been a fully informed choice.
Within the housing sector, some people like Aileen Evans, Alison Inman, Tunde Hinton. It’s largely been amazing, strong women who I’ve supported and who have supported me.
HD: If it wasn’t for those people, do you think you wouldn’t be where you are now?
DF: Yes, I think so. I think it’s all about relationships and finding people who help you be your best self. I talked about people who were involved in my career, but of course it’s also people outside who are also inspirational. So lots of people who I was involved in campaigns with, or even people whose works I’ve read.
I was asked the other day, if I could recommend one management book what would it be? And I thought about it, and then I thought that actually it’s Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom. It’s brilliant. Such integrity and such courage.
It gets to the point, just before the Apartheid regime fell, where young activists come in. They are quite critical of the ANC leaders in the prison but rather than get angry Mandela really works hard to listen and understand these young activists and how things have changed beyond the prison walls.
As a leader Mandela was always able to rise above conflict, build relationships and work out what had to be done, always holding true to himself and his principles.
HD: How have the events of 2020 affected you personally and your own views on equality and diversity?
DF: It’s strengthened my view that tackling structural inequalities within society is of prime importance. It’s not enough to just see diversity as being about being nice to people and doing no wrong. It’s not enough to be a bystander, and actually we need to develop an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic understanding.
It’s more than just, we’re all nice and we get on and we listen. Often, when we talk about equality and diversity it sometimes feels like it’s about assimilation rather than changing the dominant culture. It is not at all helpful, that idea that you’re only valuable if you fit the existing mould. We’ve got to be about more.
HD: Do you think we are making progress, that we are going in the right direction?
DF: I don’t think progress is ever linear. Just using the Women’s movement, for example. In the beginning of the 20th century, there was the movement to win the vote for women, but at the same time there was a much wider women’s movement, which is often not recognized. Women’s Pioneer is part of that.
There were women campaigning to allow women to live independently and to obtain housing for women. And there were lots of other people doing work to ensure that women could become doctors, and lawyers, to break down the barriers in the professions.
It was a real high point for people’s understanding around gender, and some of the conversations that women were having in that movement were having were very similar to the conversations we have today…
…then, by the fifties women are being pushed back into the home. And that’s gone. But then by the seventies you get a second wave women’s movement, and now you’d arguably say we’re in the third wave.
I sometimes think of it as a pulled-out slinky. As long as you’re still moving in the right direction, you have to accept that sometimes we go back a bit before we go forward again. I wish this wasn’t so, but we need to persevere, we need to keep on going through it.
HD: Do people sometimes perpetuate discrimination without realising?
DF: I don’t think any of us really understand everything that we ourselves do. I’m very conscious that I describe myself now as a white, middle-class woman, so it’s incumbent on me to use that privilege and to talk about racism and to try and challenge racism, and to listen to Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic women about what the impacts of racism are and what good practice involves.
I need to take the same approach on other issues which don’t impact me directly, such as disability. At the same time, my experience as a lesbian mother from a working class background helps in that I know what some forms of oppression feel like.
All of us are going to get things wrong sometimes, so we just have to recognise that and be willing to do things differently and better.
HD: What questions should we all be asking ourselves about what we can do to create a more inclusive society?
DF: If it’s one question, I think it’s about being aware of yourself and what privilege you do have and you don’t have. And then thinking, how do I use that privilege best?
I think we need to know our history and we need to understand the roots of different forms of discrimination. That involves understanding the impact of 21st century capitalism too.
It’s a question of what more can I do? What am I in the best position to do…
…and some of that is about recognising the culture of other people and making sure other people feel included.
It’s about visibility as well. One of the challenges Women’s Pioneer has had is that we’ve got a two-thirds BAME tenant demographic, and I don’t think we’re quite there in terms of our staff. And we’re certainly not there in terms of our senior management team and our board.
So, it’s really important that we talk to residents about what more we can do. We need to consider our recruitment practices and how people progress through the organisation. That involves looking at the talent within our organisation and see whether some people’s ability has been underestimated.
We must support those who have been marginalised or overlooked and continually seek to improve.
Want to get involved in the #housingdiversitystories series? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
More from the Housing Diversity Stories series:
Are you a social housing professional? Sign up for a FREE MEMBERSHIP to upload news stories, post job vacancies, and connect with colleagues on our secure social feed.