Co-operative Identity and the way forward for women: After ICA’s 33rd World Co-operative Congress

21 July 2022

Webinar with Melina Morrison, CEO, BCCM presenting on co-operative identity

Thank you for the invitation to provide this address on the theme of the Co-operative Identity and the way forward for women: After ICA’s 33rd World Co-operative Congress.

Thank you, Ms Arai and the ICA AP Women’s Committee, and greetings co-operators from Australian women co-operators.

This is a vital topic and I commend the Committee for raising this topic. My speech is made of 5 parts.

  1. Firstly, I will discuss the current position of women in the world in the spheres of economic, social and political inclusion.
  2. Secondly, I discuss how co-operatives empower women.
  3. Thirdly, notwithstanding this empowerment, I will discuss how we still have some way to go in co-ops.
  4. Fourthly, I will share ideas for improving women’s position in co-operatives.
  5. And fifth, draw the final conclusions.

1. Gender equality: Still a way to go

Women make up approximately half of the world’s population. We therefore also offer half of the world’s capacity for innovation, research, creativity, development, technological and scientific discovery, and leadership.

Yet so many women remain excluded from economic participation around the world in a multitude of ways. Not only do women suffer, but the world misses out on the profound contribution that women offer.

Goal 5 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to achieve “gender equality and women’s empowerment”. In many countries there has been progress towards this goal but there is still a lot of work to be done for us to achieve parity.

The 2022 WEF Global Gender Gap report, which is based on 14 indicators across financial, health, education and political metrics, sits at 68.1% closed. It is sobering to think that in every country of the globe, women do not enjoy the same status as men. Further, the Economic Participation and Opportunity subindex sits at only 60.3%.

The education subindex is at 94.4%. Health and survival is at 95.8%. But political empowerment subindex is only 22%.

So we are a long way off gender parity.

 According to the 2022 global gender gap index, the years it is likely to take to close the worldwide gender gap is still significant at 132 years. Covid-related disruptions threaten to wind back some of the progress we have made.

The World Economic Forum report found that women lost more work during covid and performed more of the additional caring duties such as home schooling. The ILO reported an increase in violence against women during the pandemic.

As well as covid-related challenges, the ILO noted that climate change impacts women disproportionately, and particularly women in developing nations.

These figures are unsurprising when we see women under-represented in leadership and management roles, and over-represented at the bottom of the income distribution.

Men consistently earn more than women and are more likely to own land, and many women do not have control over household spending even when they have earnt the money.

We know that women want to work. The ILO offers these statistics:

  • Worldwide, 45% of women are in paid employment compared to 70% of men
  • 76% of unpaid caring work is done by women, and 42% of women don’t work in paid employment because of this unpaid caring work (as opposed to 6% of men)
  • 28% of people in leadership or management roles are women
  • The income of women is 20% less than that of men

Women face significant barries to employment. In particular, access to affordable and high-quality childcare is a key issue shaping workforce participation for women. Time spent out of the workforce in unpaid caring roles hurts women’s short-term prospects for promotion, but also threatens their post-work quality of life through decreased savings.

As well as providing positive outcomes for individuals, gender equality is good news for economies. A 2022 World Bank report, Women, Business and the Law, noted the connection between increasing equality and resilient economies.

There is some positive progress. Pleasingly, the World Bank reports that 23 governments around the world enacted legislative change in the last year to support gender equality. These included the governments of Kuwait, Pakistan, and Vietnam.

As a movement it’s vital that we consider our role in moving towards gender equality.

2. Co-operatives: Empowering gender equality

Co-operatives are uniquely placed to help close the gender gap, both within our own organisations but also in society more broadly.

The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2022 report outlined eight indicators that point to the level of gender equality that is enshrined in the laws of a nation: mobility, workplace, pay, marriage, parenthood, entrepreneurship, assets and pension.

These indicators can also assist us to understand how co-operatives can tangibly and meaningfully support gender equality. While co-operatives are not the authors of legislation, the way in which they operate can embody principles of gender equality across these eight areas.

In particular, co-ops can actively promote gender equality and mobility in the areas of the workplace and pay, and support mothers to participate in the workforce through flexible working conditions and childcare.

Through education, they can also equip female members and employees with the financial literacy they need to build a secure future for themselves regardless of their marital status.

These activities sound very familiar to our co-operative identity – concern for community, education, training and information, democratic member control; indeed, a co-operative that is following the seven principles of co-operation is automatically working towards gender equality. The goal of gender equality is intertwined with our principles of co-operation. 

3. Even in co-ops, women still face marginalisation

a. Identity statement

Even in our progressive co-operative movement, we have work to do. Women in co-operatives are not immune from the challenges their peers in investor-led business face. We need to continually ensure that we are aware of gender equity issues and work to address them. It’s important that this work is conducted by both women and men – it must truly be a collaborative effort. We are fortunate to have the ICA’s Gender Equality Committee (ICA-GEC) to support this process.

The current consultation on the ICA co-operative identity statement provides us with a valuable opportunity to reflect on what it means to truly pursue gender equality and the practical outcomes that will occur as a result. It is important for us to have a clear vision of what we want to see in the future.

b. The big issues

I believe that female representation in co-operative leadership, the economic participation of women in co-operatives and female-friendly workplace policies are three key areas for the co-operative movement to pursue in the coming years.

c. Women in co-operative leadership

We need women to work at all levels within co-operative enterprises. In particular, we need to address more representation of women in CEO, chair and board positions.

This requires a long-term strategy where suitable women are identified as future leaders and are then equipped with the knowledge, skills and experiences they need to move into senior roles. We need to intentionally mentor the current and next generation of women in our movement.

d. Women’s economic participation

Co-operatives have a long history of empowering marginalised communities and opening the doors to economic participation. They are therefore well-placed to offer women a bridge to financial independence and a seat at the decision-making table.

e. A female-friendly workplace

As a socially progressive model, co-operatives must ensure that our organisations are workplaces where all employees can thrive, and that take into account the unique needs of both men and women.

Like offering flexibility in returning to work after having a child, the provision of on-site childcare, family-friendly work hours, facilities for breastfeeding women, or access to additional education in economies where girls have traditionally exited secondary schooling early.

4. Finding the way forward

a. What co-ops are doing

In November 2021, the ICA Asia and Pacific Committee on Women hosted the 11th Asia and Pacific Regional Women’s Forum. The forum highlighted examples of co-operatives that are actively working towards gender equality in their communities.

We learnt about the work of Rah-e-Roshd Cooperative Educational Complex, Iran which supports gender equity through voluntary and open membership. We heard how Japan’s Central Worker Cooperative promotes self-agency in members through democratic member control, and how the ACCU in Thailand supports member economic control and ensures that women’s voices are heard. We heard how iCoop in South Korea has ensured that women have equal access to their education programs.

The forum also heard about co-operatives in conflict-affected regions and learnt how the promotion of peace and non-violence in the home, community and workplace is critical in closing the gender gap. We heard a call to embed these principles of peace and non-violence into the statement of co-operative identity.

The benefits of this extend to individuals, families, communities and nations as they seek to rebuild after violence.

At the 33rd World Cooperative Congress of the ICA in December last year we heard that while our movement demonstrates a commitment to equality, in co-operative governance we have room to improve in the areas of diversity and inclusivity.

A lack of female representation negatively impacts co-operatives from both social and a business perspectives. A Recommendation for Action to emerge from the Congress was to “Ensure all key cooperative movement stakeholders have a greater understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within our shared cooperative identity. It has been proposed to develop a new principle about inclusion and equity.”

b. Identity consultation

The Congress indicated the need for a global process to determine the efficacy of the Statement on the Cooperative Identity.

The survey seeks to determine whether the statement is still aligned with the values and needs of co-operatives today, and to understand any updates that might be required. We therefore should consider whether the current statement adequately addresses the needs of women and the role of co-operatives in closing the gender gap.

I encourage you to complete the survey if you haven’t already so that your voice can be heard.

If we look at our statement of co-operative identity, we can see how principles of gender inclusion are already present. The principle of voluntary and open membership means that women cannot be excluded from co-operative membership on the basis of their gender.

Once members, they are part of a democratic process of control according to the one member, one vote rule, which means they have an equal say in co-op decisions. Through member economic participation women are empowered and the members of the co-op achieve more collectively than they could individually.

The autonomy and independence of co-operatives allows them to stand against those who would seek to oppress women.

In a co-operative, education, training and information is provided to build the capacity of members including women.

Co-operation among co-operatives gives us strength to stand as a movement and to share resources and knowledge that support our goal of gender equality.

And the concern for community that is so critical to the co-operative way means that we cannot simply look away when we see gender inequality.However, we also need to ensure that the links between the principles of co-operation and our work towards gender equality are clear and understood across our entire movement, and that on a daily basis we live out these principles in seeking to close the gap.

c. The Australian experience

As Australia’s apex group for co-operatives and mutuals, the BCCM has conducted research specifically focusing on the inclusion of women in the co-operative sector. Our 2022 National Mutual Economy report found that the representation of women CEOs at the biggest 100 co-ops and mutuals was 17 per cent in 2021, up from 3 per cent in 2016.

The data also shows that the number of top 100 co-ops and mutuals with women chairs grew from 15 per cent to 21 per cent during the same period.

Significantly, in 2021 the percentage of female CEOs and chairs in comparable investor-based businesses was less than half the proportion in co-ops and mutuals. Our experience here demonstrates that a significant shift can occur in just 5 years.

In 2017, the BCCM’s Eliza’s project: Gender inclusion in the CME sector in Australia report offered 3 key recommendations for improving gender equity in Australian co-ops:

  • People want access to flexible work; as a workplace practice that is embedded in the culture and has full support of the leadership.
  • People want access to leadership training and sponsorship; there is a clear pattern of women in middle management – what is needed are initiatives to help women move beyond this point.
  • A commitment to change starts at the top, with boards and executive teams.

d. Progress is possible

We can harness the inherent strengths of co-operatives to support gender equality. In particular:

  • Co-ops are agile, responsive and can make decisions quickly. We can work directly with our boards to enact appropriate and change – something that we have found during recent natural disasters in Australia, where co-ops provided action and leadership in the immediate aftermath.
  • Co-ops have local knowledge and networks. This allows co-ops to truly understand the needs of the community, the unique challenges they face and the prevailing culture.
  • Co-ops have a high level of community trust and goodwill. Because of their local networks, co-ops have strong relationships in their communities. We have even seen community members seeking solace at co-operatives, knowing they could turn to a trusted organisation for support in a crisis.
  • Co-ops put people before profits. For example, it may cost more to pay female workers maternity leave. They can take a long-term perspective and know that they will ultimately see the rewards of nurturing their workforce.

5. Conclusion

a. Concrete goals

Co-operatives worldwide need to continue the conversation about the role we can play in closing the gender gap. In particular, we can empower women to have increased economic participation through co-operative ownership.

The strength of our model is that it provides the opportunity for all people to be active business owners, building community and individual wealth through co-operation. This means that even for women who left school at a young age or who have not been able to access childcare, there is an opportunity to work alongside likeminded others in a way that supports the needs of members.

As a movement we need to embed certain ambitions into our identity to ensure our long-term pursuit of gender equality.

This includes:

  • Regardless of gender, co-operative workers should receive equal pay for equal work.
  • Programs to develop the capacity of the next generation of co-operative leaders, with a focus on ensuring women are targeted to participate in these initiatives.
  • Workplaces free from harassment and discrimination of all forms.
  • Practical support for women to return to the workforce after time spent in unpaid caring roles, and to access flexible working conditions where possible.
  • Outreach programs targeting teen girls and young women who are at risk of financial and social disadvantage to teach them about co-operatives and how they can join the movement.

b. A strategy to achieve them

Without a measurable and clear strategy in place, these goals will only remain a dream. Together, we have the opportunity to enact meaningful change through a process of consultation and collaboration with existing and potential co-operators. It is through the power of co-operatives coming together, as facilitated by the ICA Asia Pacific and the ICA more broadly, that we can have a truly global initiative strategically designed to lift womens’ progress.

c. A commitment within the co-operative movement

We will never know what the world can become until women everywhere are able to pursue their full potential, unhindered by social, legal, environmental or financial constraints. The time is here for the co-operative movement to step into the gap and help close the gap.


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