Mapping Gender Equality in the Cooperatives Sector

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November 2016

By Allison Orr

In 2015, the International Labor Organisation (ILO) and the International Cooperative Alliance undertook research into women’s empowerment and gender equality in the cooperative movement.

The research drew on surveys and interviews with experts and practitioners from the cooperative, labour and women’s movements, and the report Advancing Gender Equality: The Cooperative Way outlined the results. The report shows that the cooperative model can be adept at addressing women’s empowerment and gender equality concerns, however it also identified obstacles to women’s empowerment and persistent gaps in gender equality within the cooperative movement. It showed that globally, while women are among the most involved in and served by cooperative organisations, they are among the least likely to hold high-ranking decision-making roles. The research also found that when cooperatives keep track of gender statistics within their organisations, they fared better in gender sensitive programming.

This research is a preliminary first step to tracking this data in the cooperative sector in Australia. There is a lack of both raw data on gender statistics, and research and evaluation on the impacts of gender equality strategies within the cooperative sector in Australia.

All sectors have a tendency to show a pyramid structure – the closer you get to top power the fewer women there are – and our dataset shows that this is unfortunately true of the cooperative sector in Australia. Our dataset also shows that same outcome seen by the ILO survey: that while women are the majority of employees of cooperatives, they are by no means the majority of management. In fact, our data shows that the higher you go, the worse to ratio of men to women.

The cooperative sector is in a unique position to take a leadership role in addressing this the gender gap at the executive and board level.   Firstly, the member-lead governance structure offers great potential opportunities for women. The women surveyed in the ILO report outlined the characteristics of cooperatives that further their empowerment: they are owned and controlled by members; and they are guided by values and principles that encourage democracy, concern for community and open membership.

A second characteristic that makes cooperatives an obvious leader for gender equality is that there is already a great history of empowerment of women in this sector. Gender equality has in principle been a part of the cooperative sector from its earliest history. The Rochdale Pioneers’ rules gave full membership rights to both women and men, and the first woman member of a cooperative, Eliza Brierley (after whom this project is named), was admitted in 1846. However, it took nearly a century after that, 1922, for the first woman, Mary Cottrell, to appear on a Board of a Cooperative, a reluctance to see women in positions of power that seems to have carried through to today.

It is specifically this disparity at management levels that shows up in the data in our current research. In the ILO report, 65 per cent of respondents said the feature most significant for the empowerment of women is the opportunity to participate in the governance and management of the organisation. More work needs to be done to ensure this potential exists in reality for women in the cooperatives sector and not just in principle. 

This Research

This research is a first preliminary step to mapping women’s participation in the cooperative sector, with view to doing a broader and deeper gender mapping of the sector at a later date, a Project we have called Eliza’s Project.

We have used publicly available data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) to evaluate the participation of women in the top 100 cooperative and mutual enterprises (CMEs) in Australia. We have taken the list from the 2015 National Mutual Economy Report.

Of the top 100 CMEs, 60 reported to the WGEA in 2014-2015 year (the most recent year for which we have data). Only 1 CME is listed as non-compliant with the WGEA.

This is an ongoing project for Per Capita, in collaboration with the Business Council of Cooperatives and Mutuals.

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