We interviewed women involved in housing IT from Adra, Civica, Community Housing, Northgate Public Services, PIMSS Data Systems, Prodo Digital and Rochdale Boroughwide Housing about their various roles in IT, any challenges they’ve faced as women in a traditionally male-dominated sector and how more women can be encouraged to consider a career in housing IT.
What attracted you to a career in housing IT?
PIMSS Data Systems’ head of asset management, Ruth Dent, said, “Like a lot of people, I didn’t set out to have a career in housing IT – it just kind of happened! It’s a fascinating and fast-moving sector and I love the fact that it’s problem-based – what’s your issue, where are your difficulties, and how can we help you to fix them? We do some amazing work and I love being part of a team that works collaboratively to shape the way housing may look in the future.”
Civica’s director of social housing, Michelle Tyler, said, “I’ve always worked in IT but in a different field to housing. It was a real opportunity when I moved into housing, allowing me to further my career in a more complex sector, providing digital solutions for our customers and their tenants. It has definitely met my expectations, giving me the knowledge and experience to take my career further in this field while working in a fast-paced environment, both internally and externally.”
Adra Housing’s technical lead of its new core business system implementation, Sarah Louise Griffith, said, “My role in IT at Adra is attractive because it’s an opportunity to work in a field that’s continuously developing. There’s a misconception that housing is very traditional but the reality is very different; there are always interesting technologies emerging and new skills to learn.”
What gender-specific challenges have you had to overcome?
PIMSS’s Dent said, “I’ve gone to some meetings where I have to spend the first 20 minutes just proving that I know what I’m talking about before we even get onto the purpose of the meeting itself. I often conduct meetings alongside a business development manager (who is male) and on numerous occasions, despite me answering the client’s questions, the next question will still be directed to my colleague.
“Being younger also means that I’ve had to deal with questions over how I’ve ended up in my role and whether I got here through my skills, knowledge or even sexual favours! These comments have been made ‘off the cuff’ but nevertheless, they were still said.
“For less experienced women, there is a strong need to ‘fit in’ – when I was younger, I would even look up the football results on a Sunday night so I could join in conversations at the office the next morning. I was grateful of the praise of my colleagues for ‘making the best tea’ – I now realise how stupid I was and, though those experiences have made me stronger, it wasn’t a path I should have gone down.
“The challenges go beyond the workplace. I have a three-year old daughter and I’m the main breadwinner in the family – I was recently asked by a neighbour when trying to arrange a play date if “I worked full time as well?” As well as what, please?”
Community Housing’s transformation team comprises a group of women from across the business brought together to implement new housing and asset management systems for the group and to drive business-wide transformation.
Community Housing’s transformation team said, “Things have moved on from the male-dominated world of IT. The previous experience of the more technical members of our team has been that due to other people’s perceptions, they’ve felt that they’ve had to prove their abilities more than their male counterparts in order to progress. However, there has been a behavioural shift over the past few years as more women progress in IT, bringing with them broader perspectives to the roles.” Northgate Public Services’ housing software development manager, Karen Scott, said, “From the very start of my career, I’ve been surrounded by strong female managers and directors – this has really helped me to see that I can move up the ladder. Women are represented at top levels within Northgate and their visibility in key positions engenders a real ‘I believe I can do it’ attitude.
“While IT does tend to be male dominated, within my own team we are all very much equals. Northgate’s philosophy is, whoever is right for the job gets the job regardless of gender and I haven’t experienced any barriers to moving on and upwards. Flexible, part-time and home working options are available to everyone which has meant that I’ve retained the skills and expertise of two of my female developers who needed that flexibility.”
Prodo Digital’s CEO, Pippa Adams, said, “When it comes to gender-specific challenges, one of the best things I’ve found about housing is that it is incredibly inclusive. In particular, IT departments in housing tend to be very diverse, inclusive and positive environments.
“Through working with hundreds of housing organisations of all shapes and sizes over the years, we’ve seen at first-hand how many women are in pivotal roles. I’ve watched the sector evolve to the point where I don’t believe gender is an issue to female success and that by talking about gender, we’re actually creating a barrier that doesn’t exist.”
Rochdale Boroughwide Housing’s head of transformation, Jan Heath, said, “In terms of gender-specific challenges, I have only ever found the sector to be supportive and empowering for women and I’ve never seen gender as an issue. There are more women than men in our IT department and I’m surrounded by a strong female-led team, with plenty of opportunities to learn and develop. Our gender pay gap figures show that women at Rochdale Housing are paid on average five per cent more than men across the society.”
Which aspects of your role are more suited to women?
Civica’s Tyler said, “As a senior leader, I don’t believe there are aspects of the role that are better suited to women, although the way in which I approach an issue might be different. Encouraging conversation allows me to make the most of my team’s combined knowledge and skills. The ability to multi-task, empathise, value relationships and, vitally, listen and make your team feel they are valued and making a contribution are all crucial.”
Community Housing’s transformation team said, “To successfully deliver a project of this size and complexity, there are some key skills the team demonstrate every day, such as patience, sensitivity, innovation and communication. Because our project is as much about transformation as it is about IT implementation, the team needs to constantly challenge the status quo – this requires excellent listening skills, tact, diplomacy and a huge amount of emotional intelligence to reassure colleagues about the changes and giving them the confidence to be accountable for the design and testing of the new systems.”
Northgate’s Scott said, “I don’t know if you can necessarily attribute this as a ‘female skill’, but I love to draw out who people are and match them to the best project for them. I’m a big believer in looking at personality types – are they are talker or not, do they think outside the box or take a literal view? I must be doing something right because we have a very strong development team here at Northgate that has worked together for a number of years, so we all know our individual strengths and weaknesses.”
Are there enough opportunities for women in housing IT?
Adra’s Griffith said, “I think the term ‘IT’ puts people off, particularly women. It’s not about the techy nuts and bolts, it’s about understanding the business, being analytical, approachable and developing solutions to the problems. We need a huge variety of skills, such as data analysis, and there are opportunities for a much wider skillset than women realise.
“From a wider perspective, we’re very lucky in Wales because there are a number of women in prominent IT roles and this can only be good to encourage more women to become involved.”
Community Housing’s transformation team said, “At a practical level, the housing sector is moving to a much more flexible and agile approach to service delivery which enables both men and women to achieve a positive work-life balance.
“In addition, the generational change to non-gender specific education and the growing use of technology in our daily lives means that the mysteries and technicalities surrounding IT are less of a challenge and women have more confidence to contribute and make an impact.”
Northgate’s Scott said, “Flexible working has been a game changer for women, who in my experience, tend to be the ones juggling home and work responsibilities. The key is to find a company that recognises the need to invest in and retain their staff.
“A member of my team recently considered leaving because she was finding it hard to combine full-time work with caring for a young family and an elderly relative. I was able to offer her part-time working, which meant she could continue to work and we didn’t lose her skills and experience.
“For women to pursue opportunities in IT, it’s crucial for them to see other women in senior leadership roles that they can aspire to and which show a clear career path. At Northgate, we’ve women represented at every level, which is hugely encouraging to other women. Across housing IT as a whole, I think the opportunities are there but visibility is a key issue.”
Rochdale Housing’s Heath said, “Gender diversity is essential in any organisation, and an inclusive workplace helps us to make sure that we recruit the right people with the right values. If you have the technical knowledge and skills combined with empathy and insight, there are plenty of opportunities within housing IT and you can make a real difference. At Rochdale Housing, we make sure that we put our values around equality, diversity and inclusion into practice, from internal workshops on dealing with the menopause to supporting ‘Rochdale in Rainbows’.
What are the most important factors in recruiting more women into housing IT?
Community Housing’s transformation team said, “Make it pink? Clichés aside, as with any role in housing, to encourage more female employees there are some basics that an employer should offer – flexible working, equal pay, assurance of equalities and offering ‘learn as you earn’ opportunities.
“We do a lot to encourage women to take up roles in areas of the business that are historically male-dominated, offering apprentice opportunities, working closely with the local schools and an increase in female role models in senior positions. Over the past two years, we have recruited our first two female IT specialists, created the transformation team to design and build our new business systems and recently become members of ‘Women into Construction’ to reduce the skills gap and create a more gender-equal work force.”
Adra’s Griffith said, “I strongly believe that flexible working is the way forward! Companies should offer flexible working where you can choose when and where to work. I’m lucky that Adra offers exactly that – working hours that suit my family life, helping me to find the right work-life balance. Flexible working results in happier staff and greater productivity, and it would help to attract more women into housing IT and, equally importantly, retain them.”
Civica’s Tyler said, “Employers now realise that mixed gender teams improve communication, collaboration and innovation so it’s important to attract the best talent. Any woman pursuing a job in IT should actively seek out employers who encourage and promote diversity such as Civica (a Financial Times Diversity Leader). Additionally, customers appreciate partnering with organisations whose employees represent a workforce as diverse and inclusive as their own.”
PIMSS’s Dent said, “Awareness of the size and scope of IT in the housing sector and making opportunities accessible are both vital. If more women were aware of the possibility of roles, then more would do the necessary training to get the right skills. I have been lucky, but the sector is almost hidden and still seen as a male career.”
What are the benefits of gender diversity in housing IT?
Northgate’s Scott said, “Gender diversity in technology is a hot topic right now, and rightly so. For me, the difference between a good product development team and an excellent one is how closely it reflects its varied customer base. It’s important for the team to be able to represent a range of viewpoints and perspectives.
“I lead a team of seven men and five women and for me, it’s the mix of personality types which fosters the creativity we need to make successful products. We have strong female product leads who work very closely with the customers to understand and translate their needs and then input them into the development of the design. Working as a team, we balance out each other’s views to create products that are both functionally strong and pleasing to the eye.”
PIMSS’s Dent said, “All diversity brings about new ideas. A group of white ‘gen-X’ men are likely to have the same ideals, training and backgrounds, so bring in people from a different path and new ideas can spark. It prevents organisations getting stuck in a rut and creates innovation in a way that might not be possible otherwise.”
Should more to be done to encourage girls to study STEM subjects?
Civica’s Tyler said, “Absolutely – more women in STEM would provide a larger pool of resources. With the resulting different views and wider perspectives, we would see increased creativity, innovation and a positive impact on all organisations. For example, that’s why Civica partners with schools via our Coding for Schools programme, runs hackathons and supports Young Enterprise and the Tech Talent Charter.”
Northgate’s Scott said, “I would love more girls to study STEM subjects and to consider jobs in technology and engineering. I see some of my friends’ children in primary school writing computer programmes and I am blown away – it’s really encouraging to see this starting from an early age. In my day, the emphasis was on home economics and childcare!”
Adra’s Griffith said, “Introducing more STEM subjects through workshops and practical learning in primary education would ignite a spark in more young girls and show them that STEM subjects aren’t boring! STEM learning such as coding workshops will help to nurture talent at a young age and set them on a STEM-related career path.”
PIMSS’s Dent said, “For me, this is all about understanding where STEM subjects can lead you. If girls don’t know about the careers available, they probably won’t understand why they could study those subjects in the first place. I went back to university at 30 to do a degree in a subject related to what I then knew I wanted my career to be. I’d also like to see more apprenticeships and hands-on learning opportunities in STEM subject areas.”
How can women mentor and support other women to encourage them to pursue housing IT careers?
Civica’s Tyler said, “As a woman in technology, I’ve enjoyed many different experiences and opportunities. It’s really important for me to share those experiences to allow other women to grow and further their careers as I have. I always aim to lead by example and mentor those through real-life examples and providing opportunities to grow in a role.”
Community Housing’s transformation team said, “As a business, we encourage positive female role models, both young and old, with women who can dispel any myths of working in a particular area or at a particular level through sharing their experiences, such as progressing with their career after having children or taking on caring responsibilities, and providing buddying opportunities and raising awareness of some of the issues women experience.
“For example, Community Housing has just had a menopause awareness campaign, not only offering direct support for women but also raising awareness for managers and our male colleagues on how they can support female co-workers – the campaign was a really positive step in encouraging an equal and diverse workforce.”
Prodo’s Adams said, “To promote and encourage new female talent to join the sector, I think it’s all about actively showcasing just how many women are in great roles across IT already. I’m a firm believer in role models and the phrase ‘if you can see it, then you can be it’ – there are plenty of opportunities out there and raising the profile of those in IT is a great way to encourage others.
“Here at Prodo, we have plenty of women applying for roles across the business, from software engineers to web developers and digital consultants, and women comprise most of our leadership team. This visible presence of women just reinforces the fact that gender isn’t holding anyone back.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Sarah Louise Griffith (Adra Housing), Michelle Tyler (Civica), The Transformation Team (Community Housing Group), Karen Scott (Northgate Public Services), Ruth Dent (PIMSS Data Systems), Pippa Adams (Prodo Digital) and Jan Heath (Rochdale Boroughwide Housing) for their editorial contributions to this article.
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