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Diverse Voices: Women - Blog by Georgina Thompson, Leeds & Yorkshire Housing Association 

The second session of our Diverse Voices series featured a fantastic line-up of inspiring women who talked about their experiences and the challenges they faced by on their way up the career ladder.

We had an impressive 65 Placeshapers members sign up to listen and it proved a very inspiring and empowering session, with excellent feedback.

Mosscare St Vincent’s CEO, Charlie Norman, chaired the session and the speakers were Fiona MacGregor (CEO, Regulator of Social Housing), Angela Lockwood (CEO, North Star) and Hannah Harvey (Executive Director of Operations, Saffron Housing).

Fiona MacGregor was first up.

She grew up in a small town outside Edinburgh and was the first person in her family to go to university. She graduated during a recession and her experience of seeing her father and other friends’ fathers get made redundant has given her a life-long fear of financial instability and impressed upon her the importance of being ‘in work’.

Her first ‘proper job’ was as a typist at Edinburgh District Council in the housing department and it immediately made her realise the value that housing brings to people’s lives. She later moved to London and joined the Housing Corporation and worked her way up through various roles. She said she never had a ‘career plan’ so never felt as though she had specific goals she had to achieve. Likewise, she told us she never felt actively held back as a woman but realises some of the things she has done or ways she has felt are typically female.

She said early on in her career she became aware of ‘not being listened to’ as much as some of the men in the room. She found her way to establish credibility and ensure that her voice was heard was by always making sure she was well informed about whatever subject was being discussed: if you can demonstrate greater subject knowledge, then people will listen to you. She also realised that a lot of senior people speak in a certain way, so she developed techniques to mirror them.

She impressed upon listeners not to let a lack of self-confidence hold you back. Be calm, be kind, be a good listener and develop resilience in yourself and others. She believes those who are in senior positions can play a key role in setting a positive culture for an organisation and bringing others on.

She ended with two top tips:

Hannah Harvey was next. She grew up in a small farming village in Norfolk. Her family was very traditional, and she felt there was an expectation for her to marry a local farmer and aspire only to be ‘safe’ and ‘looked after’. She chose a different path: she came out at 17 and knew she had to find her own way and be independent of thought.

She joined the police at 18, progressing to the role of sergeant at just 21. She worked in the sex offenders’ unit and as a family liaison officer. Although she loved the job, she did encounter prejudiced comments about only progressing so fast because of her sexuality and being female (box ticking), which had a profound effect on her self-confidence. As a result, she always felt driven to prove her competence, that ‘I’ve got where I am because of what I’ve done, not what I am’.

When she left the police, she joined Children’s Services, helping give young people better chances in life. This was where she realised the fundamental importance of safe housing. She enjoyed the role but continual restructures made her worry about money and job security which led to her move into housing, first as Anti-Social Behaviour Co-ordinator at Victory Housing, then to Flagship Housing (now Hanover Housing) as Regional Director.  There she felt encouraged and empowered by her (male) manager and comfortable to be all facets of herself. She emphasised the huge difference that an inspiring manager, who ‘lifts you up’, can make which gave her the confidence to apply for her current role as Executive Director at Saffron. She’s since had two very supportive and inspirational CEOs at Saffron who have really helped her to believe in herself so much more and no longer struggle with imposter syndrome.

She stressed how important it is so important to be authentic, transparent and true to who you are. ‘Don’t be afraid to share a bit of your emotional side’. People respect that you are human and not robotic and it’s not a weakness to admit when you are finding it hard, such as through this pandemic. And don’t be afraid to call out behaviour that’s not acceptable.

Angela Lockwood, CEO of North Star was the third speaker. She grew up in a mining community in Country Durham where there were clear divisions in labour between men and women, attitudes were very patriarchal and there was little aspiration for women. However, there were some very positive, messages too: primarily ‘you’ve got to work hard’ and it was strong women holding everything together in the mining villages, particularly during the miners strike.

She left school at 16 and joined Sunderland Council as a Housing Management Assistant (in reality a rent collector) and she loved it. It saw that it was the women who paid the rent and again held things together when times were tough. That frontline experience has formed her career to date.

She then joined a national housing association, got qualified and worked her way up. She became one of the only senior women in the organisation but found it took real energy to be heard and she often felt ‘outside of the group’. She felt like the only way to counter this was to constantly work harder than the men and over-perform to get any attention and feel ‘good enough’. She found copying male behaviours didn’t work for her and felt frustrated that she encountered the exact same problems once she moved to a different organisation.

The turning point for her was embarking on an MBA. She met a great professor of gender studies and realised that she was being subtly excluded at work. She went on to do lots of research of her own and found that it is very common for people in minorities to encounter subconscious bias and it really made sense of her own struggle. This was empowering and career changing for her.

She went on to do her dissertation on “How do senior women influence gender issues within their organisations?”. She interviewed about half a dozen senior women and every one of them could describe similar struggles. All the women felt the need to over perform and to counter negative perceptions and language about women in senior positions.

She ended by encouraging listeners to get out there and talk and inspire other women. Be kind to one another and try to give positive feedback whenever you can. Good female role-models in organisations attract others to their teams.

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