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Celebrating International Women’s Day

How The Pioneer Group empowers women

The Pioneer Group places equality, diversity and inclusion at the heart of our organisation and we have always championed and celebrated our different backgrounds and experiences.

To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, we caught up with some of the high profile women across The Pioneer Group including Kate Foley, Housing and Customer Services Director, and Lisa Martinali, Community Regeneration Director, to find out how they rose to their senior roles, what The Pioneer Group is doing to build an inclusive team and hopefully inspire other women in the housing sector to fulfil their potential.


How did you reach your current positions?

Kate: I have had a varied career, starting as a research officer in trade unions. During my time at Birmingham City Council, I had roles in urban policy issues and housing management. The Pioneer Group offered me something a bit different, as my role combines community, regeneration, policy experience and housing management knowledge.

Lisa: I always knew that I would work in housing, and the issues around reducing homelessness appealed to me. After graduation, I found myself in community development, tenant participation, support services and welfare roles. I have worked my way across The Pioneer Group and built a strong track record in regeneration.

How do you feel empowered by The Pioneer Group?

 Kate: The Pioneer Group strongly values collaboration and recognises and celebrates high performance. The culture is about building a solid team and working together. There is little patience for egos, and there is lots of freedom to act and make decisions. You won’t find any glass ceilings here. In fact, there is a strong investment in talent no matter what your starting point was. We all have a different journey, and The Pioneer Group recognises that.

Lisa: There is a celebration of diversity and uniqueness at The Pioneer Group. I joined as a project manager and was encouraged through each stage of my journey to my current role. The mentoring support here really underlines the investment that’s been made into learning and development. I would say that this support, especially the leadership training at the Roffey Park Institute, has been quite life changing.

What does The Pioneer Group do to promote equality and inclusion?

Kate: We have a solid equality, diversity and inclusion policy which was updated in July 2020. In the first meeting of our Diversity Advisory Group at the end of February, 14 women attended out of 19 people across the organisation. From board members to frontline staff, we recruited a team that represents all voices in our community. Our activities are led by our teams and feedback from tenants. We’ve celebrated International Women’s Day previously, alongside Eid, Diwali and Black History Month.

 Why does The Pioneer Group undertake these activities?

Kate: As well as matching our values, diversity and inclusion makes good business sense. We make better quality decisions by understanding the range of services necessary for all our clients.

Lisa: We’re interested in providing fair access, opening everything we do up to different people, and ensuring that our services are responsive to local needs. We are always looking to improve and recognise that one size doesn’t fit all and not everyone is the same.

 Are there any female specific initiatives for your clients?

 Lisa: While we are inclusive, sometimes more women participate in certain programmes. We find overwhelmingly women will come to lone parent employment opportunity activities or become our Parent Champions/Ambassadors. In every activity we offer, we’re looking for self-improvement and to build on participants’ skills.

Who are some of the superstar women from your organisation?

Kate: We have so many superstars, it’s really difficult to create a short list. From Zoe who provides the really popular exercise and fitness online, to Laura at the Community Hubs, Becki working on food parcels, Claire and Kelly on development, to Molly working with volunteers, The Pioneer Group has some inspirational women at every level.

We also spoke to Claire Orpwood, Pioneer Group’s Development Manager, one of a minority of senior women in her line of work.  When asked about overcoming obstacles to reach her position, she said that early in her career when attending site, she was sometimes mistaken for either someone from the health & safety team or administration from the office, rather than the client.

She noted however, that it is now more commonplace for women to represent the housing development sector and oversee construction projects. She felt that her potential was recognised in the housing association sector. During her first role as an administration assistant in an all-male department, she was approached by HR to accompany and learn from the team that was adapting properties for those with additional needs.

From this first experience, she was supported through a housing studies course and given an opportunity in housing development, which she is incredibly grateful for. She felt that The Pioneer Group alongside other housing association employers are full of equal opportunities. Through her 25+ years of experience, she has seen some positive changes and thinks the sky’s the limit for some lucky young women starting out their careers today.

How has Covid affected the women in Castle Vale?

 Lisa: The community has really suffered, especially through rising unemployment and food poverty. We hope that our work at The Pioneer Group has been received positively. From an employee point of view, we have been offered flexible furlough, as many women have become the main home schoolers.

Kate: For many people this has been an incredibly difficult time, and of course we’ve witnessed a frightening increase in domestic violence and abuse.  With children at home it’s been a stressful time for many, but maybe this has also provided opportunities for Dads to spend a bit more quality time and it’s certainly paved the way for a more flexible workplace in the future.  

Final word – What would you advise to a young woman looking to rise up the housing career ladder?

Kate: There are some really great role models out there, especially across our sector and in Birmingham. I would advise you to seek them out and don’t be scared to contact them to find out how they got to their positions and what advice they can give to you.