Making a wish: Interview with Helen Greig, WISH’s managing director

We speak with Helen Greig to discuss her plans for Women In Social Housing and the drive for equality in the housing sector.
Helen Greig, WISH’s new managing director. Credit: Helen Greig

When we connect with Helen Greig, the new managing director of Women in Social Housing (WISH), she is, like many of us, working from home.

Smiling, she apologises in advance for any noise – one of her daughters is playing Roblox with friends after finishing her schoolwork. “She might get very excited and start shouting!” she laughs.

As a specialist in supported housing with over 20 years’ experience in the sector, Greig has always worked hard to get quieter voices heard. The daughter of a vicar, Greig currently works as managing director of a social housing consultancy service and as a senior consultant for a social impact organisation. For three years she served as East Midlands external affairs manager for the National Housing Federation (NHF) and she has also held senior roles at several housing associations.

“I grew up in a vicarage, which… makes it sound like it was quite a sheltered upbringing,” Greig says. “It was so far away from that! We regularly came home to find homeless people living in our house. One of my earliest memories is a heroin user detoxing in our house… From a very young age, I was brought up in quite a communal way, which clearly shaped my future direction of travel as a job.”

Greig has been the new managing director of WISH since last December, succeeding its founder Nicola Dibb. A membership network for women working in the UK’s housing sector, WISH currently operates in nine regions across England and Wales and has around 500 member organisations.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, WISH has moved its events online to positive reception. It now plans to host a monthly national webinar, with each one exploring a different theme. While Greig acknowledges how the pandemic has exacerbated existing social inequalities – ‘Every time there’s a problem [equality] goes out the window again,” she says – as a working mother of two, she admits that it has also created opportunities for people who would otherwise struggle to attend in-person events.

“For somebody who has been fighting for flexible working since I became a parent, this is absolutely one of the best things [to come out of the pandemic],” Greig says. “Pre-pandemic, I would have appreciated more webinars, more accessibility to things, the ability to access and work from a different perspective.

“I think, even without a pandemic, it’s just finally being recognised that having the ability to do things that work on your timetable is a really important part of keeping everyone in the workplace –and not losing the talent! Because so much talent just goes when you make them fit into your mould and you don’t flex with them.”

A proud feminist in what she calls “a very modern family” – she is in an opposite-sex civil partnership – Greig wants to tackle misconceptions around networking and the idea that WISH is just for senior women in housing. To Greig, WISH is about connecting women with shared interests and worldviews, not just awkward chats with strangers looking to climb the career ladder. Most women who attend WISH’s events range from entry level to frontline management, she says.

“There are a huge number of different kinds of women across the housing sector and WISH is for everybody,” Greig stresses. “If you want to be an accountant or an architect for example and that’s your job, that’s your dream, you don’t have to want to be a chief exec. Just be an architect! But you still need a network in order to do really well in your job, in order to feel comfortable and to have your support around you.”

Greig with her two daughters at her civil partnership ceremony. Credit: Helen Greig

While some in housing may no longer see gender equality as an issue, it’s clear that WISH’s work is still important. An NHF review into housing association staff in England last year found the median average pay gap between men and women in the sector to be 8.1%. While this is considerably lower than the national average pay gap of 17.3%, it is still too large. Women remain underrepresented in housing associations at board and executive level.

Greig offers several reasons as to why women are less likely to go on to have senior housing roles, such as struggling to fit back in after taking leave to care for children or family. Despite her vast experience – she took up her first management position in her late 20s – Greig admits that her confidence was knocked both times she returned from maternity leave. While most of Greig’s management colleagues over the years have been women, she says, a glass ceiling still seems to exist at a higher level.

Greig spent a year working for Building Better, the NHF’s MMC project, and it made clear to her that some areas of housing, such as development, remain more male-dominated than others. Greig stresses that improving gender inequality is not necessarily about a sector-wide drive but focusing on the sub-sectors where issues most stubbornly persist.

“Why are we not encouraging more women, for example, through the development route?” Greig asks. “You talk to women who work in the development sector especially and they really feel the lack of women. If we focused our energies on specific, still male-dominated, arms of the sector rather than women as a whole [or] housing as a whole, I think that’s what we can really do to start redressing the balance.”

So how can we actively create an environment in which women can progress? Historically, Greig says, our idea of leadership has been one defined by stereotypically male traits: by “aggressive tendencies, by go-getting attitudes, by not taking no for an answer”. This is one thing she believes that the sector needs to address, as these traits have not always proven to be healthy in leaders.

“When we’re trying to run housing associations that are inclusive, and welcoming, and responsive to the needs of residents so that we never have another Grenfell [Tower fire], maybe aggression and go-getting and never taking no for an answer aren’t the right characteristics,” Greig says.

Greig empathises with housing association boards reluctant to take risks with their governance at stake. However, there may be benefits to boards doing something different, she says, such as appointing a woman to a leadership role instead of a man who feels like a safer pair of hands.

“I do wonder how much of this is about changing the culture as a whole of leadership and getting people to understand that it might be brave, but fortune favours the brave,” Greig says. “We’re not going to change a thing if we just keep doing more of the same.”

Women aren’t the only people disadvantaged by these conversative perceptions. The NHF’s review also found that BME, LGBTQ+, and disabled people remain underrepresented in housing leadership roles. It begs the question of how much the drive for equality needs to be an intersectional effort.

Greig is pleased that WISH is collaborating with bodies like the Housing Diversity Network (HDN), carving out its niche as the “networking experts for women” while deferring to the HDN on equality overall. She thinks it is vital for like-minded housing organisations not to step on each other’s toes and to be clear on the role they can play to achieve lasting change.

“Mushtaq [Khan], the chief exec at HDN, said something really powerful at the [NHF] webinar before Christmas… Everyone sees diversity as a problem to be solved. It’s not. It’s part of something that we have to keep working at on an ongoing basis. I think that really epitomises it. For me it’s the lasting impact.

“We’ve seen [initiatives] come and go across the sector, and it’s really important for me that if we get this right this time [and] we all find our space in that ecosystem, we can make this last and make it a permanent fixture, to the point hopefully where we all put ourselves out of business because we’re no longer needed.”

While putting herself out of business isn’t something she believes will happen in her lifetime, Greig has high hopes for WISH this year of helping women across the sector be the best version of themselves and helping them to find their own people.

“I’m delighted that I’ve been brought in at this time because it feels like this is the opportunity where we can really start making a difference,” Greig concludes. “And it’s so needed in the middle of a pandemic where everything has the potential to go backwards. Now we can work on it and make sure it doesn’t.”

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