It will be all white on the night?

Leadership census

It will be all white on the night
22 April 2005

Everyone knows housing is too right-on to be racist. So why is there only one non-white head of housing in the top 100 councils?

Probably the most surprising result of our survey is that, despite housing’s socially-aware remit, just one head of housing out of England’s 100 largest councils is not white: David Lewis at Lewisham council. This is far fewer than the 6.9% of all council employees from a BME background.

The picture is not much better at housing associations. Although eight of the 100 largest have a BME chief executive, four of those counted in the Housing Corporation’s league of the 100 largest associations are actually headed by the same person – Anu Vedi, group chief executive of Genesis Housing Group (see fact file).

So in reality, just five people from BME backgrounds have risen to a chief executive post at the largest housing associations. And within these, again, there is just one black person – Clive Coley of South London Family Housing Association – and four Asian people. This is despite the fact that 13% of housing association workers overall are not white. And not one of these BME leaders is female.

Things may be changing, though.

The survey shows that while BME leaders control at least as much stock as their white counterparts, on average they are several years younger. This suggests that BME people are better represented in the younger generation of chief executives now coming through.

Another positive result is that BME people are not just confined to BME specialist associations: within the largest 100 associations, all the BME chief executives are heads of general needs organisations.

Still, the overall findings have drawn criticism. A spokesperson for the Campaign for Racial Equality says: “The results of the survey are disturbing, but not surprising. The figures show that, just like in many other areas across the public sector, ethnic minorities are still struggling to break through into the top ranks.”

But Chan Kataria, chief of East Midlands housing association, is taken aback by the results: “They’re surprising because we are distinct from the private sector in that we have diversity as a cornerstone of our sector. If we can’t have [more BME leaders] when we’re trying to meet the diverse housing needs of society, it’s a failing of the sector.”

So what’s the solution? Few BME leaders are keen to allege the sector is blighted by widespread discrimination, but several point to the need for a change in culture. Chan Abraham, chief executive of Huntingdonshire Housing Partnership, says: “There are popular myths about black and Asian people which started in the 50s and they still linger. The work of a few liberally minded people is not going to roll back more than 50 years of tendentious reporting by the popular press.”

Several chiefs praise mentoring schemes such as Career Opportunities for Ethnic Minorities (see box, below right) as an excellent way to encourage people from BME backgrounds to apply for the top jobs. And Darshan Matharoo, elected member for the West Midlands at the Chartered Institute of Housing council, points to training schemes like Warwick University’s Leadership Programme for Housing as a means of educating the sector. “Housing associations should have development and training programmes for ethnic minorities to gain the skills to compete for senior positions,” he says.

Kataria recommends targeting recruits with potential even before they choose their careers. “The sector has not done enough to make itself known to young people from BME backgrounds,” he says. “We need to proactively recruit from schools and universities, rather than advertising in BME media and hoping people will be interested.”

  COFEM: the only way is up

Career Opportunities for Ethnic Minorities is a mentoring scheme in north-west England for housing associations and local authorities. It matches BME housing workers with senior managers who help them further their careers

Sharon Stapleton-Smith, project manager in development at Leeds Federated Housing Association, heard about Career Opportunities for Ethnic Minorities (COFEM) a year ago.
“I was interested because it aims to help BME people move to higher management positions. I thought it would be a great opportunity to fill the big gap in general organisations, which are all run by white men.”
COFEM found her and five colleagues a mentor, Sharon Allen, chief executive of St Anne’s Community Services in Leeds, which provides housing and support for homeless and excluded people, and began meeting with her for several hours every two to three months. “We discuss how to move my career on, how to be successful in applications and interviews,” says Stapleton-Smith. “Before I started the scheme, I looked at adverts and thought I wasn’t the right type of person, but after evaluating my skills at COFEM, I know I can do these jobs.

“It has boosted my confidence to think that actually I have the right kind of experience to apply for more senior positions.”

“When I started working in housing 10 years ago, there were even fewer people from BMEs working in senior positions. Fortunately now things are changing – slowly, but definitely,” she says.

“Schemes like COFEM are leading the way. Sometimes it is still easy to feel singled out, but COFEM reminds us that we can do the job.”

  Anu Vedi – race to the top

Anu Vedi is chief executive of four associations listed in our tables. They all belong to Genesis Housing Group, of which he is group head. He entered housing in 1982 as director of finance at Ealing Family Housing Association,
then worked for Sanctuary Housing Association before moving to Paddington Churches Housing Association. He became chief executive there in 1999 and created Genesis Housing Group in 2001.

“I don’t think BME people even have as much power as your survey suggests. I am the only non-white chief executive of an association with more than 10,000 units. That fact must question the transparency of the process of recruiting for chief executives.

“People are not in a position to discriminate against me now, but over the years I have seen attitudes which now make me smile. In one interview in the 1980s a board member said to me: ‘I see you were born in Kenya – when are you going back there?’ I replied: ‘ I was born in British East Africa and my grandfather fought for the British; I am a British citizen and I’m going nowhere.’ His face was a mix of embarrassment and anger.

“Since then, the sector has been good at embracing equal opportunities policies. But the next challenge lies in embracing diversity as part of the culture of the organisation, which is a quantum leap.

“Boards need to develop people with potential from diverse backgrounds. We may need to have independent people sitting on recruitment panels, and to examine how and where we advertise jobs and how people are headhunted.

“We also need to recruit people from outside housing. Today’s sector is more competitive than ever , so leadership attributes are different to a few years ago. I do not see successors to today’s chief executives necessarily coming from within the sector. If diversity is part of our culture, people with potential from all backgrounds will surface.

“Role models are important for people from minorities. I was awarded the CBE in January. I hesitated before accepting, but then did because I hope others will now have the confidence to come forward.”

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