Female cooperators still face a glass ceiling

Cooperatives can play a relevant role in achieving gender equality in top positions. However, when it comes to gender dynamics it is necessary not to over-simplify matters. The feminine stereotype is deeply rooted in mental and social structures. Although cooperatives attempt to remove many of the external barriers for women, their efforts are still not sufficient. In practice, internal and external barriers operate together in a more unpredictable and randomized process.

4 April 2016

David Zuluaga Goyeneche

In 2015, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) published a report called Advancing Gender Equality: The co-operative way. The document set out to understand the impact of the Co-operative Movement on gender equality. It stated that cooperatives, which are rooted in the values of self-help, equality, equity and democracy, are well placed to promote the empowerment of women and equity at the workplace.

The non-hierarchical nature of cooperatives enables its members to exercise a more democratic form of control over their working conditions. Consequently, despite the gap in gender-related data, it has been said that this enterprise model provides a greater opportunity to challenge patriarchal hierarchies at the workplace. Through cooperatives, women are more likely to achieve more democratic processes to reduce social inequalities.

But it is not that simple. In the same year, the ILO also presented its global report, Women in Business and Management: Gaining Momentum, which affirmed that, ‘The glass ceiling that prevents women from reaching top positions in business and management may be showing cracks but it is still there […] there is still a dearth of women at the top of the corporate ladder. And the larger the company or organization, the less likely the head will be a woman – five per cent or less of the CEOs of the world’s largest corporations are women’.

Findings suggested that gender equality only occurs in cooperatives to a certain extent. According to Genna Miller’s research in 2012, called Gender Trouble: Investigating Gender and Economic Democracy in Worker Cooperatives in the United States, “women in many worker cooperatives still face barriers and changes to their full equality in terms of membership, status and participation in decision-making”.

The barriers referred to are both internal and external. The former are rooted in the cultural spectrum and it is possible to identify them as social and personal expectations. Amongst women, these are conceived as forms of behavior related to looking after the home, being a mother, the will to serve, lack of competitiveness, lack of ambition regarding power and fear of success amongst others.

On the other hand, the external barriers are linked to demographic and contextual elements. These can be easily identified as the gender salary gap, the absence of female role models, workplace bullying and, in the worst cases, psychological or sexual harassment. These barriers somehow clearly establish the rules of the game which put women at a disadvantage when it comes to achieving top positions.

In fact, whilst cooperatives are attempting to remove the glass ceiling as displayed in many of the external barriers faced by women, a lot more is required. The internal barriers are still rooted deeply in mental and social structures. Furthermore, in practice both kinds of barriers operate together in a more unpredictable and randomized process.

International Organisation of Industrial, Artisanal and
Service Producers' Cooperatives

Secretariat: C/O European Cooperative House - avenue Milcamps 105
1030 Brussels, Belgium
Tel: +32 2 543 1033, fax: +32 2 543 1037
E-mail: cicopa[at]

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