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International Women’s Day: Interview with Sally Thomas

To mark International Women’s Day 2021, SFHA's Chief Executive, Sally Thomas, has shared her thoughts on what the day means to her.  

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What does International Women’s Day mean to you?  

For me, International Women’s Day means recognition for the role that women play in the world and the potential to do more. It presents an opportunity to shine a light on gender inequality, particularly around pay, wealth, status and power.   

What made you want to work in the housing sector?  

It reflects my values of fairness and equality, social justice and everyone having the best life they can. Being able to apply these values and make a real difference to the lives of people who lose out because of their start in life or the circumstances they have found themselves in is what drives me. And working to make sure that everyone has a safe, warm and affordable home is one of the biggest differences we can make to people’s lives and their potential.

I grew up in council housing, new towns and, as a young adult needing somewhere to live while I looked for my first job, became trapped in a failing housing market, in London, not surprisingly - priced out of private rent and homeownership and ineligible for council and housing association waiting lists.   

I ended up living in squats and short-life housing condemned for demolition before starting a housing co-op, which gave me a safe, secure, affordable home in a community and with some measure of control and certainty. Government support for community-led housing and ring-fenced funding for co-ops at the time made it possible and gave me the start I needed.  

As a result, I’m passionate about the importance of decent, affordable housing to a good life and as an absolute human right. 

What do you think are the key challenges facing women in the workplace?  

Combining work with having children, childcare requirements and caring for other dependents, such as elderly parents, is a huge challenge that invariably falls to women. Second, male characteristics are built into the foundation of the working world – valuing logic over emotion, leading from the front over shared leadership and extroversion over reflection. It is changing, but slowly. Finally, women often find themselves starting on the back foot at work and then having to run faster and harder to catch up; many women feel they have to be better than male colleagues to get the same recognition and appreciation. 

Who are your female role models?  

My female role models include:  

  • Gloria Steinem, an American feminist writer and social-political activist 
  • Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister    
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an American politician serving as the U.S Representative for New York’s 14th District
  • Greta Thunberg, an environmental activist  
  • Patti Smith, an American musician, author, poet and influential in the New York City punk rock movement
  • So many women in social housing – especially those who live in social housing and volunteer in their communities or become board members.   

What advice would you offer to women looking to pursue a career in the housing sector?  

It’s a great sector to be part of. My advice would be to believe in yourself and in your potential. Bring yourself and who you are to work. Have a plan for where you’d like to see your journey in the housing sector take you and aim to go higher than you think you can. Have peers and role models who can support and advise you along the way. And do the work – keep learning about the sector and the people who are at the heart of it and keep learning about yourself and what you can achieve.   

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