What a pivotal year 2020 has been for shining a spotlight on discrimination and provoking discussion around equality, inclusivity, and diversity.
Housing Digital has teamed up with the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) for a series of #housingdiversitystories with sector leaders from a range of backgrounds.
We start the series by speaking to Rebecca Clarke, head of Membership at the CIH and co-chair of its internal Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion employee group.
She talks about her path into the housing sector, those who inspired her, and the importance of giving back and helping others up the career ladder…
HD: Could you tell us a bit about you and your career in housing?
RC: I started off doing an economics and social history degree at Birmingham University, and my dissertation ended up actually focussing on Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy and all of the social divides that that potentially created or did create. I became a little bit obsessed with that to be honest, and I think that after you’ve spent about three years looking at something, you are quite passionate about it by the end of it.
After university, I started looking around for graduate roles, and there wasn’t any that sprung out that were in housing or in local authorities, so I did the clichéd thing like a lot of graduates and ended up working in recruitment, and ended up working in quite a hard commercial role. 100 commercial cold calls a day on some days and things like that. That was pretty hard work for the first 18 months.
Then when I came to look for a new position, a recruiter actually said to me, we’ve got this one role at Orbit Group. Do you know anything about housing?
So it was by luck really that I ended up going on to work for Orbit as their Business Development Manager for their Consultancy arm and worked for Ellie Holt, who was a fantastic role model for me at the time and a great way to get into housing and find my feet.
And then Ellie actually, as a member of CIH, talked to me a lot about the membership and everything there. And then an opportunity became available to become a regional manager at the CIH and look after London, South East, and Eastern.
Then after about a year, I secured the interim role as Head of Membership, doing a bit of a maternity cover, which was amazing to be given that opportunity that early on in my career. About six months later, I got given the permanent role and have been doing that ever since.
HD: Would you say you’ve always worked in an inclusive environment?
RC: Not especially. In my earlier role and growing up, it wasn’t always inclusive, and there were some horror moments where you get asked, well, what are you going to wear to that meeting with the client? Can you not just stick a pair of heels on, or a skirt, just to go to that meeting and then take them off afterward? People really trying to almost change how I was as a person.
“My dissertation ended up focussing on Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy and all of the social divides that that created – I became a bit obsessed”
As I started to get older that started to grate against me more and more, because I think that, especially if you are in a client-facing role, it’s important that people buy into you and that your own personality is important. You spend most of your life at work, so if you can’t be yourself and you can’t be happy, I think that that’s a pretty miserable existence.
But thankfully, since coming into housing, that’s completely changed.
HD: What have been the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?
RC: I struggled a lot in the beginning and probably a little bit now with imposter syndrome and things like that, particularly when I was first going into different meetings.
I remember the first time I went to a networking event, and it was a room full of IT directors. It was a very male dominated environment, men of a certain age, and that was quite daunting, walking into a room next to the Shard and seeing over 100 IT directors in the room and not having ever been to a networking event before, let alone anything else.
I remember going and kind of standing at the side and talking to myself and going, come on, count to 10, and then you can go over and say hello. And trying to pluck up the confidence to do that was one of the scariest things that I’ve ever had to do.
I’ll always remember one of the guys seeing me and coming over and actually chatting to me on the side and then taking me over into one of the groups. So I don’t know if he felt similar or whatnot, but that was really nice, and I think that as a first experience in housing was actually really lovely because that gave me a bit of confidence then when I went to the next ones.
HD: Who’s been your biggest role model/inspiration?
RC: I talk about role models a lot, and I think that touches on how important it is that you can see people who are like you, that you can say similar things, so you can one day aspire to be like them. And you’ve got that constant helping hand. In housing we’re blessed to have so many different people that are really positive role models, and for me I always hark back to- It feels like I’m name-dropping a bit, but…
…so definitely people like Alison. But as I say, Ellie Holt was my first manager, and was a huge inspiration to me and is still always there to give me a helping hand in whatever I need to do.
More recently, I think there’s a lot of chief executives who I can aspire to be, who are proud about whether they are a lesbian woman or a gay man. And as a young gay woman myself, I think that that’s important to for me to look up to people like the Denise Fowlers of the world who have got really powerful stories and are really down to earth and who are willing to help.
Hopefully now I can do a bit more of that myself to other people who maybe see me as being in that space and that voice.
HD: With 2020 proving a pivotal year for diversity, how has that impacted on you personally and your views on equality, diversity, and inclusivity?
RC: For me, in the last year or so it’s really started to hit home, the levels of discrimination and inequality we’ve got. And when you work in housing it’s impossible to not see that every day. When you think about the way the housing system is at the moment and the needs of people and the lack of affordable and social housing, that’s quite shocking when you come across some of the levels of poverty and deprivation everyday. But…
…and if we don’t learn from what’s gone on in the last few months I don’t know if we ever will learn.
I remember not that long ago, I was actually the victim of homophobic abuse. And I’m not even now that comfortable in saying, because I was brought up very much along the lines of ‘words will never hurt you, sticks and stones will break your bones’ and all of that. I think that I always didn’t want to point out difference.
People are apologetic for it, saying oh, they’re just idiots, just ignore them. I think that that’s the kind of attitude we have to a lot of these things, and I think that actually by ignoring it and not calling it out, that silence is worse than almost doing the crime in the first place.
“There were some horror moments where you get asked, what are you going to wear to that meeting with the client? Can you not just stick a pair of heels on?”
I’ve got a really good role now within the CIH where I can make a difference, where I can influence, where there’s a really good platform for us to say the right things and to try to educate and raise awareness. Like I say, if we can’t do that collectively after what’s happened in the world in the last few months, then I just don’t know if there’s ever going to be a better opportunity for change to come.
HD: Do you think that people don’t sometimes realise they are perpetuating discrimination and that their behaviour can be part of the problem?
RC: I’ve got colleagues who talk to me about how Black Lives Matter and the influence of George Floyd and others has really impacted them and their family and friends and their communities. I always thought that I did understand, but I think that until the last few months I really didn’t.
The biggest thing that people are coming out and saying is that silence is almost worse than actually doing the thing in the first place because you need to be able to speak up for people who perhaps don’t have a voice. I think that people don’t always necessarily understand that.
For me, there’s classic instances that happen a lot where you introduce yourself and they go, oh, so who’s such-and-such? And you go, oh, well that’s my partner, and it comes out in my case that you’re gay, and they go, wow, my cousin was gay.
And it’s like, why would you say that? You wouldn’t necessarily say that about anything else. But I think that’s them trying to make you feel at ease and a bit more relaxed, which is nice in a way, but at the same time instances like that aren’t great.
HD: What questions should people be asking themselves to ensure we’re creating an inclusive environment in our personal lives and in the workplace?
RC: It’s about how you want to be treated yourself a lot of the time. So if you were the victim of some of the things that have been going on, it’s trying to put maybe that privilege aside that you never really considered you’d had until you see some of the awful things and images that have come from around the world. You think that, well, that would never happen here, that would never happen to me, but that’s kind of the point.
“Silence is almost worse than doing the thing in the first place because you need to be able to speak up for people who don’t have a voice – people don’t always understand that”
As a housing professional, it’s so important that you create that time for yourself. And I think that definitely on the most basic of levels, how would I like to be treated? How would I like my children and my family and my friends to be treated? Because it should be really straightforward.
And further down the line from that, unconscious bias can be quite useful, but then it’s, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to go away and have those conversations and feel comfortable doing it?
HD: You’re the co-chair of the CIH’s internal Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion employee group. When was that set up, and what are the group’s aims and objectives?
RC: At CIH, it’s fairly well known that we haven’t done enough in this space for a long time, and we haven’t been as challenging as what we perhaps could have been. So we had a Diversity 2020 pledge a few years ago as one of our presidential campaigns, in which organisations could sign up to the pledge’s commitments and go away and honour those within their own organisations to create a more diverse, equal, and inclusive organisation for everybody.
That was already in existence, so even prior to the events of the last few months, that was something we were looking to work with this year and try and almost relaunch, I guess, because not enough had been done in the last few years.
Then when the events of the last few months happened, we took the very conscious decision to launch our internal staff group as well because it wasn’t representative of the communities that would typically face discrimination. We were an all-white group, people that hadn’t necessarily felt that, and we found ourselves speaking on behalf of people or thinking we understood what was going on.
So we took a really conscious decision in these last few months to include people from the communities that these issues actually affect. It is a lot more representative now, and that will help us be able to build a better organisation, to be a better employer, to do more for our members, and be the professional body that we should be.
HD: CIH is working with a newly formed members’ steering group, comprising professionals from across the housing sector. Can you tell us more about what the aims and objectives of that group are?
RC: We’ve not had a steering group that focuses on equality and diversity before, and I think that, if we are to be really honest with ourselves and we really want to get this right, then again it’s completely the same point. It has to be built by our members and by our sector. It’s not a membership-exclusive group, because again our membership base probably isn’t representative of the whole sector and the people that work in the sector, and most importantly the people that live in our homes.
So I think that we are really keen to listen, to work with the sector to get that right, and hopefully hearing their first-hand experiences of what they’ve been through will help shape what we need to be in terms of being an effective professional body.
HD: How can the housing sector help with those aims and objectives?
RC: At the moment, we’re still looking for volunteers. It’s been done a lot on word-of-mouth and our newsletters up to now. So if anybody is especially interested or knows a colleague they think will be interested, we’d be really grateful.
But also, I think the biggest and most important thing for me is that we hear really truthful and honest feedback and that we don’t shy away from that. So as we continue, we want to hear what’s going on in the sector, we want to hear what people think of what we’re doing. If it’s not quite right then we can tweak it, we can change it, and we can move on.
I’ve had quite a few people say well, you know, we’ve had steering groups coming out of our ears and everything has been tried before and it didn’t work, but I’m a big believer in trying to be resilient and proving people wrong and being the change that you want to see.
HD: With the CIH and Housing Digital working together on this Diversity series, why is it important to put people’s individual stories out there?
RC: So I’m really excited about this, but it comes back to the point about role models and things like that…
…I think that if you’re not really human and down-to-earth about that, you can put yourself on a bit of a pedestal, and people just think, well, I can never be like that, or, you know, it’s impossible because they’re one of a few people that are from diverse backgrounds who have got into those positions.
So it’s up to all of us really to give that hand up to the next generation and just try and be there for people and make ourselves real. Unless we do that, it will just always be, well, that’s the equality and diversity agenda and it’s just a policy that sits there, rather than, this is how it impacts on our colleagues and on our members.
Hopefully, that’s what this series will bring, and if anybody is interested in coming aboard and doing that, I’m sure we’d love to hear from them and get them on Zoom.
Want to get involved in the #housingdiversitystories series? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org