International Women’s Day: Women in the community housing sector

With International Women’s Day on 8 March, it is a fitting time to look at women’s role in the community housing sector. Of the 26 community housing providers from six jurisdictions that participated in the 2016 House Keys Workforce, the data indicated that 72% of employees the community housing sector are women.

For senior managers, 66% were female and 34% male. Interestingly, there were a greater proportion of men on board of CHPs, with 60% male board members and 40% women.

CHIA spoke to leading women in the community housing sector to hear their insights on women’s place in the sector. Jill Ritherdon (CEO and Company Secretary, Venture Housing), Leonie King (CEO, City West Housing) and Michele Adair (CEO, Housing Trust) gave their perspectives below:

Do you think the community housing sector is a good field for women to work in?

J.R: The sector provides excellent opportunities for women, at all levels of their career and in a broad selection of roles.  I would go so far as to suggest that this sector is a significant employer of women, particularly in those roles that directly interface with tenants.  And women are well-represented in senior executive roles across Australia.  The entire staff at Venture are women.  This was not by design but, rather, the women who applied for the roles when advertised, had the successful combination of business acumen, the requisite qualifications and experience, good negotiation and problem-solving skills, initiative, empathy and a desire to work with and for purpose.

L.K: The sector provides a unique opportunity to balance social and commercial issues, to focus on specific client groups or a diverse cohort of people, to work for big or small organisations, regional providers or metropolitan providers.  It is a growth industry with a wide range of disciplines and the opportunities are there to be taken or created.  It’s a great sector for anyone to work in, not just women, however the diversity of the sector and the services we provide means there are many more opportunities for women than in some other industries.

M.A: Absolutely, it’s a wonderful sector for women. Community housing is the perfect social enterprise as it provides the head-heart alignment many women look for in their careers. Our businesses are very commercial with big property budgets and long-term asset portfolios. We work closely to support tenants living with complex needs and we actively engage in the media and political arena. It doesn’t matter what skills, qualifications or interests you have, they’re needed in this sector. As with all sectors, more diversity leads to better business outcomes and better societies.

In your opinion, what changes need to be made to further assist women working in the community housing sector?

J.R: In broad terms, more flexibility for parents (of any gender) of young children within the parameters of the operational needs of the organisation.  However, I do believe that the Community Housing sector is, for the most part, a leader in this area. And more one on one coaching of younger women and encouragement to pursue relevant professional development.

L.K: While the sector is diverse and the role of community housing providers multi-faceted, there are still some divisions along gender lines. Notwithstanding this there are a growing number of women in a broad range of leadership roles in the sector, both in management and on community housing provider boards. Those of us in leadership roles need to support and mentor other women to ensure they can develop their skills and to encourage them to stay in the sector for the long-term. I have been very fortunate in the opportunities I have been given throughout my working life, including in the past 10 years or so working in this industry. If I can help create positive change for other women in the sector and for the women who need our services, then I would feel like I have given back.

M.A: The Housing Trust is very supportive of all staff and use the demands that are still more commonly placed on women as the basis for our employment practices. It’s an approach all organisations should adopt. Staff have flexible work arrangements, and we’re White Ribbon accredited and provide 10 days additional family and domestic violence leave. Everything we do reflects our company values – respect, integrity, support and collaboration. We all role model what it means to be a working woman: making choices and keeping lots of balls in the air. The education system has failed to provide the essentials many people need to progress from entry level to team leader and executive roles. We need to invest in work literacy, numeracy and communication skills to make it easier for women to progress. And of course, I’d love to see more leadership development and mentoring programs. There are some great ‘women in trades’ groups, professional services firms with project managers, and allied health service providers. We need to learn from people outside the community housing sector, not just from within it.

Homelessness is on the rise among Australian women, what do you think our sector needs to do to help them?

J.R: The staggering rise in homelessness among Australian women, particularly those over the age of forty-five years, is utterly unacceptable in a caring society. The CHP sector needs to continuously lobby governments to take a longer-term and bipartisan view on this issue. Solving homelessness (particularly for older women) needs to be a joint CHP sector / government (of all persuasions) approach.  Government-owned land should be identified and gifted (with appropriate caveats) to the Community Housing sector.The not-for-profit Community Housing Sector has taxation advantages which it can leverage and also tends to be more nimble than governments in both negotiating and delivering social and affordable housing.  An area for the government to also consider is taxation incentives for the developer than engages with the CHP in the construction of such (or similar) dwellings.

L.K: If we can create more safe, secure and affordable housing that is suitable for women, including older women and single parents, then we are taking positive first steps to help address the ‘new homeless’. If we can go that one step further and help ensure that these women are supported to be able to sustain their tenancy, to secure part or full-time work if of working age, to help broker access to affordable child care to allow them to work or to reduce social isolation for older single women then we would be really hitting some goals. None of this is particularly easy but it is certainly a worthwhile ambition for all of us in the sector, not just the women who work in community housing.

M.A: Firstly, we need the Commonwealth and State Governments to make the provision of safe, affordability housing a priority. Planning, housing and transport need to be aligned and conversation changed for the cost of purchase to crisis in rental affordability. Of the 10 largest job categories in the future 60% will be low paying so a very large number of Australians will never own a home. With the right policy settings and investment, the community housing sector will do its share to help combat the rise of homelessness.