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Women in the Boardroom, by Bernadette Conroy, Chair of Network Homes

Personally I am not the biggest fan of quotas because I don’t think any of us want to be given a position just to make up a target. We need Boards to recognise and appreciate the enormous talent that exist within our female workforce (not just because they need to fill a quota). We also need to help women build the skills and self confidence they need to sit on boards.

Network Homes has much to be proud of as we celebrate International Women’s Day this week.

We are a brilliant example of women in succeeding in leadership positions with a female Chief Executive and a female Chair. Half our Board of Directors are women with three being Committee Chairs and our Senior Management Team is roughly 40% female. 

We’re also part of a housing association sector which appears to be outpacing big business when it comes to senior female representation at senior level. Around 25% of the largest 180 housing associations (2016 figures) have female chief executives.

A survey by Inside Housing showed that that across the whole sector just under four in 10 of housing association leaders are women, with roughly the same proportion on boards and executive teams.

However, whilst we appear to be moving forward as a sector we still aren’t doing enough. So what are barriers and what are the solutions for women in housing associations and beyond? Other European nations are leading the way with gender equality with Norway making it a legal requirement that all Boards are 50% female. Do I think this approach would work in the UK?

I’m not sure. Personally I am not the biggest fan of quotas because I don’t think any of us want to be given a position just to make up a target. We need Boards to recognise and appreciate the enormous talent that exist within our female workforce (not just because they need to fill a quota). We also need to help women build the skills and self confidence they need to sit on boards. 

I am always slightly disappointed that when I am involved in a search for new Board members, we get very few applications from women.  We need to understand why this is the case.  Is it that women don’t think these are roles in which they are likely to be successful, is it a lack of self confidence, are we not ensuring that these roles look attractive to women or are we being lazy in our searches and not looking hard enough. It may be a bit of all of these.  What I can say is that from personal experience it is extremely rewarding being a Board member.  I learn so much from the various organisations I work for and that experience is transferable across all my roles. 

In my career I have had over 20 years of experience working in senior executive and non-executive positions across both public and private sectors covering financial services, housing, urban regeneration, NHS healthcare and education. When I first started out in financial services (many many years ago now!), it was a very male dominated environment. It has definitely changed and I applaud many of the banks who have taken great strides to change the environment. But there are still too many areas in which a glass ceiling still exists – the Boardroom being one of them.  I want more women to reach senior management and the Boardroom. I want more women to have these opportunities. Women bring tremendous skills to the table but perhaps more importantly they can also bring a balancing dynamic.  A board is not the sum of its individual members; it’s a collective unit that works at its best when it has diversity of skills and personalities.  I know how strong women can be around the board table, I see it particularly at Network where we have a good gender balance and exceptional women sitting at the table. 

But whether it is in the Boardroom or at any stage of your career, I want to encourage every one of our staff to reach their potential and beyond.  We need to ignore that glass ceiling by pushing through it.  My dad always said to me “never say the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon” – I don’t think he said it first, in fact I don’t know who said it originally but my father wanted me to stretch myself and not limit my ambitions.  I would like every woman in Network to have the same support that my father gave me. 

Bernadette Conroy, Chair of Network Homes