Open to women?

To be a woman in the labour market in Iran marks you out, as for every one of you in a paid job, there are eight men. 

It was inspiring for me to meet one such woman this week who is part of the co-operative sector in Iran. In Iranian coops, the ratio is less uneven. For every one woman, there are three men. You can’t easily step outside of the context and culture you are in – it’s like building a boat while the stream is carrying you on. But the co-operative sector appears to be promoting equality with gentle persistence, giving a voice to women in practice, which is a kind of radicalism of intent and commitment to transformation over time that I can admire.

The same persistence seems to spreading in other co-operative contexts. Work by the United Nations COPAC Committee suggests that 75% of stakeholders of the sector worldwide feel that women’s participation is on the rise. In South Africa, women make up more than 60% of the members of all co-operatives. In Spain, there is gender equality among worker co-operative members. 

In Japan, women have long been core to the consumer coops, in part because of barriers to their participation in the wider labour market, and their leadership in a cooperative context is slowly opening up space for women’s representation more widely. I remember visiting the Seikatsu Consumer Co-operative some years ago, which helped to get women candidates onto the ballot – politics from the kitchen was one slogan.

The challenge of opening up leadership roles to gender equality has been one of the campaign goals of the UK sector initiative, The Co-operative Women’s Challenge. We think of democracy as an open system, but the workings of democracy can throw up subtle barriers. And patriarchy, whether overt or covert, in the form of unconscious bias, has a hold in the co-operative sector that is a denial of the very values of equality and openness that coops espouse.

In Spain, women perform 40% and rising of leadership roles in worker coops. We have exemplary women leaders in UK co-operatives, with less gender inequality by far than the wider corporate sector. Less inequality, but across the sector as a whole, not yet equality or close enough to that. We need the same persistence as the co-operative women of Iran.

  The election of a second successive female President of the International Co-operative Alliance days ago wasn’t because of her gender, but in following the wonderful Dame Pauline Green, Monique Leroux offers encouragement to many women across the sector. This is what I saw in Turkey around the Alliance election, when with Pauline, a leading member of a raisin producer co-op in Turkey came to shake her hand. She said “you have given me hope for years, and now I am meeting you in person, I can say thank you.”

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