What next for women in the co-operative movement? Education, Education, Education!

The Co-operative Congress panel

Co-operatives have had a long commitment to equality, as set out in the co-operative values and principles, and the movement has often led the way on policies and practices to support gender equality. But is it too easy to take women’s position for granted now, and assume we are doing all we can to support, develop, engage and empower women as current and future members, employees, leaders and directors of co-operatives? Is there more we could and should we be doing?

On behalf of the Co-operative College and Co-operatives UK I’ve spent the past few months interviewing women in co-operatives of all shapes and sizes, and at varying stages of their careers, to ask what being a member of a co-operative means to them, what challenges and opportunities they’ve encountered, and what they’d like to see in the future. Highlights from the interviews were compiled by Co-operatives UK General Secretary, Ed Mayo, into a slidedeck of visual soundbites, aimed to provide a talking point among Co-operatives UK members.

The co-operative women’s challenge in 50 soundbites from Co-operatives UK

Extended versions of the interviews have also been collated in a publication telling women’s stories of working for co-operatives in their own words (to read the publication online, click here). The project was a follow-up to the Co-operative Women’s Challenge, which was established in 2011, and aimed to reignite and reassess the conversations started by the challenge, and encourage women and their co-operatives to get involved in taking the discussion forward.

A debate organised by the Co-operative News, and held at Unity Works in Wakefield as part of Co-operative Congress, was a great platform to get co-operators talking. Themed ‘What next for women in the co-operative movement?’, and chaired by Co-operative News Deputy Editor Rebecca Harvey, I was delighted to be invited to take part and share my experiences, alongside Britta Werner (one of the women I interviewed), worker-owner at Unicorn Grocery in Manchester and Vice-chair of Co-operatives UK, and Shaherazad Umbreen – Head of Customer and Marketing at Central England Co-operative and ‘Shoe.E.O’ of Shoes by Shaherazad.

The debate was well-attended by co-operators from across the country – men and women, young and old, from large, established retail co-ops and small, emerging worker co-ops. As my interviews were limited by time constraints, and I could only speak to a small sample of co-operators in different sectors, it was good to meet representatives of co-operatives I hadn’t managed to speak to, and hear about initiatives they’d put into place, from advertising jobs as being available full and part-time, and promoting how this works for people so flexible working becomes normalised, to offering on-the-job training and development. As participants pointed out, initiatives such as flexible working and paternity leave don’t just help women – they support men, and those with other challenges and responsibilities, and can enable men and women to support each other. This doesn’t just support individuals, of course – it benefits co-operatives as employers, enabling staff and skills retention, along with society more broadly. Little things count too – supporting colleagues in your everyday behaviour, and providing spaces for collective problem-solving. Others referred to the types of initiatives they’d like to see developed to connect co-operative women better in the future, and drew on past examples such as Co-operative Women’s Link-up, an initiative which brought women together for friendships, learning and fun.

The event also allowed space for discussion in smaller groups, where attendees spoke honestly and openly about their personal and professional experiences, from the feeling that women have to work harder to prove themselves, to the ways in which co-operative values and attitudes can be taken forward into personal relationships and partnerships such as marriage, to the social pressures facing the young women of today.

Co-operative Press Chair Elaine Dean with Co-operative News Deputy Editor Rebecca Harvey and Co-operative College Project Co-ordinator Natalie Bradbury at CongressThe overall message of the event was education, education, education. As a representative of a learning organisation, I was invited to sum up by reflecting on what education means for women, gender and co-operatives. For me, there are three interrelated aspects:

  • Firstly (and this is something I’ve heard a lot of examples of, from individual co-operatives, both in my interviews, and at the Congress debate): we need education within co-operatives – education of employees, members and directors, boards and CEOs, unions and apex bodies, around policy, HR and recruitment, culture and working environments, attitudes, communication and unconscious bias.
  • Secondly: education needs to extend outside co-operatives – this includes not just shouting about and sharing best practice from your co-operative, and within the co-operative movement, but educating a wider audience about the co-operative model and the opportunities it offers for creating more equitable ways of living and working.
  • Thirdly: co-operatives can play a part in educating around gender issues on a societal and cultural level. This involves the way men and women see themselves and relate to each other, and encompasses much more subtle and pervasive issues such as gender stereotypes and social and cultural expectations of things such as work, care and relationships. This education needs to start early – not just with men and women, but boys and girls, in schools and nurseries. Challenging gender stereotypes is one part of the solution – but it’s that important that positive examples and role models are promoted and made visible, so they become the norm rather than the exception.

The third point, around cultural and social attitudes, is perhaps the most difficult challenge to define and address, but since returning from Congress I’ve been inspired to hear about the work of TIGER (Teaching Individuals Gender Equality and Respect), a not-for-profit co-operative based in Bristol, that runs workshops with young people on key gender equality issues such as lad culture, porn and consent, sexist bullying and gender stereotypes. The College has been promoting their work to co-operative schools via the ‘Schools Weekly’ e-newsletter, and it seems to me that it’s an appropriate starting point for discussions of gender equality among young people – and an example of how co-ops can lead the way in making sure these conversations remain live and relevant. To find out more about TIGER’s work, visit www.tigerbristol.co.uk.

To read the Co-operative News write-up of the debate, click here.

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