Driving forward equality, diversity and inclusion

In this spotlight, we explore a key focus and challenge for the sector, which can serve to strengthen association’s governance functions: equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI).

They say that charity begins at home and so (in this instance) should EDI. To quote the National Housing Federation’s research into EDI in housing association staff in England, “diverse leadership teams make better decisions and having different people with different perspectives and backgrounds around the table leads to better designed services. People trust leaders that reflect the diversity of the people they lead, the customers they serve and the communities in which they are rooted”.

Whilst driving forward EDI has long been an objective of the sector, it is fair to say that the challenge of achieving this is much more difficult than many may had thought. Understanding the reasons why is key to unlocking a meaningful strategy – one that will meet the Code’s requirement to for boards to demonstrate “a clear and active commitment to achieve equality of opportunity, diversity and inclusion in all of the organisation’s activities, as well as in its own composition.”

The current landscape  

There is currently a limited amount of publicly available data relating to diversity within the sector, although a number of surveys have recently been carried out that provide us with some insight into the levels of representation at senior leadership level.

A 2019 survey found that only 7% of board members and 5% of executives from the top 50 housing associations were black, asian & minority ethnic (BAME) individuals. More generally, a study by Inside Housing found that BAME representation at executive level was 9%. These percentages should be compared to the 15% of housing association households who were headed by an ethnic minority. At the time of the most recent census (2011), 14% of the national population identified as BAME.

In a similar vein, women were also found to be under-represented at both board and executive level in 2019, with only a 41% and 40% representation rate respectively. Interestingly however, the English Housing Survey 2018/19 found that almost 60% of housing associations were headed by a female chief executive.

What is apparent is that there remains a very limited amount of data relating to EDI in the sector, and particularly in relation to other protected characteristics - whether at a leadership/employee or household level. This absence of data makes it difficult for housing associations to understand the current position both within their own organisation, but also in the wider sector.  In turn this clearly makes it difficult for associations to drive change.

Driving inclusion forward

Housing associations are well placed to set a high benchmark for other sectors when it comes to EDI - many associations have charitable purposes or strategies aimed at addressing the housing need of a specific community. As emphasised by the NHF’s research, it is therefore appropriate – business critical in terms of trust and engagement - for the workforce and governance structures of associations to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. This will also be a key factor in preparing for the changes proposed in The charter for social housing residents: social housing white paper.

The Code requires that housing associations:

  • have “policies and statements which meaningfully demonstrate this commitment, and sets priorities and objectives for the organisation to achieve
  • seek “regular assurance about how these commitments and objectives are being delivered in practice, and tracks progress against the priorities it has set
  • annually [publish] information about its work to deliver these commitments and objectives, and the progress it has made” and
  • ensure “that its workforce policies and practices support the success of the organisation and reflect its values and its commitments to equality, diversity and inclusion”.

These changes in the Code are about viewing EDI as an integral part of organisation’s strategic objectives – moving EDI from a ‘project’ or tick-box, to a cultural value that is lived and breathed.

Change begins at ‘the top’ through board leadership. It goes without saying that boards should understand the importance and value of EDI but understanding how to integrate this as a fundamental pillar of an organisation is much more difficult. Any plan should include a significant drive to regularly collect and assess data relating to diversity in your communities, workforce and governance structure. This will enable the board to understand where improvements need to be made, and formulate a clear strategy to address each area.

As the Sector Risk Profile 2020 identifies: “Providers should ensure that they are compliant with their chosen Code of Governance including taking account of where those have been updated and revised to reflect evolving expectations, for example, in respect of diversity.”

In setting priorities and objectives, organisations will need to carefully consider how they measure performance – specific targets encourage a tick-box approach, so an outcomes-focused approach based on impact and qualitative data will be vital.

The reporting requirement in the Code is intended to hold organisations to account for delivering their strategies externally too. Organisations should not shy away from setting a strategy that challenges them – it is an opportunity to showcase your organisations commitment; perseverance is what counts. Some organisations already voluntarily report on pay gaps beyond gender – including ethnicity and disability. Publishing accurate data, alongside contributing to national research, will enable the sector to track progress.

Creating a meaningful EDI strategy goes way beyond compliance with the Code. It will not be without challenge – made even more difficult in the current virtual world. But this shouldn’t be an excuse to delay - now is the time for the sector to make real strides towards change, and pave the way as it has so many times


Look out for the next Governance Spotlight Special: Leading the way in health and Safety

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