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Housing Group attributes culture to gender pay success


Teesside headquartered housing association and developer Thirteen was delighted to report favourable results when it revealed its latest gender pay data in March. The landlord, which manages around 34,000 properties, reduced the average difference between male and female employee hourly earnings by 2.5%, having gone from 7% down to 4.43%. Its median pay gap also fell to 0.0%. 

Executive Director Heather Ashton tells Nigel Wright that rather than there being a “magic formula” for achieving success, the results indicate how several factors integral to Thirteen’s culture and ethos encourage equality across the organisation.

Since joining Fabrick Housing Group in a role which encompasses responsibility for finance, IT, HR, research, policy, performance and governance, Heather has been instrumental in the organisation’s transformation during the last decade. This has included supporting negotiations with investors and regulators when Fabrick merged with Vela Group to create Thirteen in 2014, as well as integrating new systems and back office support following restructure and acquisitions.

Despite some tough periods, such as the implementation of a 1% housing association rent reduction in 2015, and when the organisation has been forced to drive efficiencies, Heather says Thirteen has remained a   positive place to work.

As well as offering attractive packages to employees, the organisation works hard to support its people. The emphasis is to make “every day a great day at work,” she says, and employees are asked to play a part in creating a rewarding environment. Given the housing sector attracts those who want to make a difference and give back to their communities, attributes like ‘pride’ and ‘caring’ are prominently featured. Though, Heather notes a degree of action and commercial thinking is needed in the sector and Thirteen tries to reinforce these behaviours too, through its considerate, smart and progressive values:

“We’re considerate in our behaviour, but we need to be smart in our approach and progressive too – always moving things forward. Led by our service directors and senior managers, the Be Thirteen campaign provided our people with a range of tools and techniques to help them reflect on how they are displaying Thirteen’s values and ensure they live and breathe them every day. It’s facilitated collaboration across the business and stretched people, as well as helping them understand their role and the impact it has on those in different service areas.”

Heather acknowledges that Thirteen’s transformation over the last few years has created some insecurity and anxiety at the organisation. Directors and managers were proactive about addressing this, she says, and have worked closely with their teams to alleviate any concerns. The organisation is committed to engaging mental health advocates, who act as a “first point of contact” for colleagues who may need additional support. A ‘Simply Health’ package also gives employees access to a range of benefits counselling services, free prescriptions and discounted gym membership.

Another initiative Thirteen hopes will further enhance its culture is agile working, which the organisation has been trialling during the last 12 months. “This isn’t just about making savings to pour back into services,” says Heather, but rather about encouraging more collaborative, efficient and effective work by giving people a choice of where and how they do it.  The organisation emphasises that “work is something you do, not where you go,” and is accelerating the rollout of laptops, tablets and mobile devices to “empower people to make their own choices about how to meet business and customer needs.” This approach also helps employees manage a healthier work-life balance by allowing them to work at home or in a location nearer to where they live, as well as at times outside of the traditional 9-5 working day.

Heather noted, however, that agile working isn’t about abandoning physical offices altogether. Often employees must be office based, and Thirteen’s Middlesbrough headquarters will play a vital role in showcasing what an agile work culture looks like. The ‘Right Space, Right Place’ programme, for example, encourages ‘hot-desking’ and offers a range of different spaces for people to choose how they wish to work, including “collaborative” and “confidential” areas. “We want our teams to interact and network with parts of the organisation they wouldn’t ordinarily interact with,” says Heather. “Customer satisfaction, in particular, is a big driver of this. And opening up the conversation between employees we expect will help us better serve our customers.”

What’s all this got to do with gender pay? Well, in Heather’s view, efforts to create a considerate, smart and progressive culture and make 'every day a great day at work' has attracted equal amounts of male and female talent. Thirteen’s 1,600 person workforce is currently split 50.1% men and women 49.9%. And, crucially, staff within the top two pay quartiles are “fairly balanced,” which has had the most impact on the organisation’s gender pay data. 

Heather says while Thirteen takes pride in it gender pay results, it won’t become complacent about its success. Over the next 12 months, the organisation will scrutinise data collected over the last two years and consider all equality, talent management, pay and reward, recruitment and retention processes and policies with the aim of identifying and tackling gender imbalances in the workforce: “Taking a positive approach to our gender pay continues to send a powerful message to staff. Currently, a lot of our thinking around gender pay is anecdotal, but we recognise additional learning is required to ensure we don’t take backwards steps.” 

A key reason for Thirteen Group’s 4.43% gender pay gap is that within the lowest pay quartile, the organisation employs more women than men, while more men are employed in the second lowest quartile. It’s a difficult issue to resolve, says Heather, as the lowest paid roles at Thirteen are mainly cleaning jobs usually undertaken by women. Trade roles held by men dominate the second lowest paid quartile. Heather says that despite encouraging women to apply for trade apprenticeships, men and women generally gravitate towards certain jobs, regardless of efforts to inspire people to consider different careers.

 

Thirteen doesn’t plan to tackle this intrinsic inequality more so than it already does but will give greater prominence to facilitating "general equality" through promoting its overall employer proposition. Increased marketing efforts to showcase what it’s like to work at Thirteen Group are already underway. This includes filming employees undertaking vacant roles, so prospective candidates get a better sense of the “day in the life” of someone in that job. Thirteen has used videos to attract people from outside of the housing sector for its critical Neighbourhood Coordinator positions, as Heather explains:

“There are 90 Neighbourhood Coordinators at Thirteen – men and women – each responsible for around 300 homes. They are instrumental in building relationships with customers and offering help and support. Often, it’s difficult to bring to life what’s involved in a job through a written job description. Our videos show existing Neighbourhood Coordinators out on their patch giving an overview of their role and talking about their experiences – it’s proven to be a powerful recruitment tool.”

Heather highlighted that since creating the Neighbourhood Coordinator roles in 2018, several women who have worked at Thirteen for many years have also gained those positions. She says there’s a clear career path associated with these opportunities and already people are demonstrating the ability to step-up into management roles. However, Heather noted that Thirteen doesn’t prioritise female-only succession planning like other companies but has various development initiatives that "promote equal opportunities across the organisation."

A Rising Stars programme, for example, includes a mixture of men and women nominated for development opportunities. This enables talented people to get involved in “critical projects” and gain broad exposure to Thirteen’s operations. Furthermore, last year two Thirteen employees – a man and women – were selected for GEM, a graduate progression scheme for the housing sector run by Incommunities. And six staff members are currently undertaking higher-level apprenticeships: “We’ve got a good track record of developing female talent,” says Heather, “though our aim is to help as many people as we can progress in their careers.”

She added: “We continue to ensure everybody here is recognised for the value that they bring regardless of gender. A valued workforce is more likely to be high performing and productive, which supports our aims and values, making Thirteen an attractive place to work.”

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