Work Together (Archive)

Cooperatives enterprises able to achieve full gender equality

17 May 2016

Cooperatives are among the best places for creating gender equality. Wherever relevant statistics exist, numbers confirm this hypothesis. Key findings of a last year online survey conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Cooperative Alliance indicate that cooperatives were having an increasingly positive impact on women. 80 per cent of survey respondents felt that cooperatives were stronger than other types of private or public sector business in advancing gender equality. About two thirds of survey respondents felt that women’s opportunity to participate in governance and management is a highly important feature of cooperatives.

In countries where some level of research exists on gender and cooperatives, the numbers follow, again, the same path. Italian surveys show that women not only constitute 61% of their workforce but that 23.6% of them hold top level positions (26% including positions of responsibility in the management and control of the cooperative), compared to 16% in limited liability companies. Gender studies carried out by the Spanish Worker Cooperatives Confederation COCETA show that almost 50% of the workers are women and that the quantity of women in high positions reaches 39%, while in other types of enterprises in Spain, this number barely attains 6%. Many other studies and examples highlight the same point. .

We find many examples throughout the world, not only in figures but also in concrete stories, showing that women working together in a cooperative enjoy a better quality of life. In Malta for example, the 16 lace-maker women of the “Koperattiva Ghawdxija tal-Bizzilla u Artigjanat” not only earn an income from their hand-made lace they sell, but also get psychological and physical health benefits, including stress reduction. Crossing the Ocean, there are other plenty of other examples. In this Work Together Issue we include the case of the Argentinean “Creciendo juntas” (Growing Together), a textile cooperative established as a working buyout, which has weathered the crisis and helped other enterprises that were in a bad situation.

Nevertheless, cooperatives do not automatically bring about gender equality.There remain many cultural structures that women and men need to overcome before full gender equity can be attained throughout the cooperative movement. According to ILO survey respondents cultural issues are the most significant barrier to gender equality encountered by cooperatives. This was overwhelmingly felt by 65 per cent of survey respondents.

Findings suggest that, as a rule, gender equality occurs in cooperatives only 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”.

A lot more needs to be done in terms of education and policies, including inside cooperatives. ILO´s research reveal that while 50 % of respondents felt that member education and training were vital for cooperatives, about the same ratio indicated that in the cooperatives they were most familiar with, there were no specific training sessions targeted to women’s empowerment and gender equality.