It’s time to take the under-representation of BME staff seriously

A few housing associations appear to have started to tackle the under-representation of BME staff at executive and board level – but there is still a long way to go

Ben Laryea is CEO of Ekaya Housing Association

Ben Laryea is CEO of Ekaya Housing Association

18 October 2018

During Black History Month, I wanted to share my experiences of the housing sector and challenge it to address the lack of BME diversity and representation at board and at executive level.

My housing career started 30 years ago after Greenwich Council started an initiative to address the lack of diversity within their workforce. The Council identified that although 12% of their population came from BME communities, this translated to only 4% of their staff. A Positive Action Trainee Programme was then set up in order to redress this imbalance.

I was fortunate enough to get a place on this six-month training scheme, and started my housing career working in the Charlton Estate Office. I then went to Richmond Churches Housing Trust (now part of the Paragon Asra group) as a housing assistant, where I gained a number of promotions over a nine-year period, to ultimately lead on housing management.

I spent five years in this position, and during this time applied for a dozen jobs at director or assistant director level and wasn’t shortlisted for most of them. For those where I was shortlisted, performing very well at interviews was still not good enough.

I eventually became an assistant director at Acton Housing Association (now part of A2Dominion), where I progressed to become the director responsible for the commercial portfolio. I am now CEO of Ekaya Housing Association, after being Deputy CEO with Westway Housing Association.

During my time in the sector, I have taken part in other initiatives such as Potential For The Top and Career Opportunities For Ethnic Minorities (COFEM), which is aimed at BME middle managers facing the challenges of breaking through the glass ceiling into senior positions. I have just completed another initiative, Leadership 2025, geared towards increasing the number of BME senior leaders in the sector.

We know that research shows that only 4.5% of CEOs and 6.8% of boards in the housing sector are made up of people from BME backgrounds. A recent Inside Housing article stated that out of the 34 CEO appointments made by the largest housing associations since 2015, only two were from BME backgrounds.

I was pleased to recently speak at Network Homes Black History Month debate on the lack of BME progression in housing. My message is that the time for talking has to stop. The sector needs to take real and meaningful action to tackle the under-representation at both board and executive level.

I am pleased that a handful of housing associations are beginning to show some level of commitment, but we need more to follow. Unless boards and executive teams take this matter seriously and see it as a business priority, we are still going to be talking about it in 30 years’ time.

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