Women are more likely to thrive in a more mutual economy

"Women need to change society, not simply their role within society," said Chris Herries at the Co-operative Congress.

"Women need to change society, not simply their role within society," said Chris Herries at the Co-operative Congress.

Ms Herries, a former Director of the Co-operative Group and Vice Chair of Co-operatives UK, chaired an active debate on the role of women within co-operatives and society at the Women's Challenge conference, during Co-operative Congress.

The session, attended by more than 20 delegates from across the movement, sought to analyse various ways in which gender inequality could be addressed. Delegates also highlighted positive initiatives that have led to an increase in representation, one of them being the Women’s Challenge initiative.

In the context of the severe economic crisis, women are facing various challenges, one of them being the fact that they are more likely to lose their jobs. Keynote speaker at the event, Professor Molly Scott Cato explained how this would lead to a “feminised recession”, with women bearing 70 per cent of the burden of austerity. She also argued women are more likely to thrive in a more mutual economy.

Another speaker at the event, Margaret Silcock, Chair of the North Region’s Values and Principles Committee encouraged women to “have a go” and stand for board elections.

Born in Scotland into a deeply religiously divided community, she witnessed the power of co-operation in daily life. “It was a co-operative community, in spite of religious division,” she recalled.

Alice Teague, Head of Policy at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), also spoke about some of the challenges faced by women. She said one big challenge is the prevailing masculine, patriarchal, corporate culture. As a result, women are unable to meet the values and managing practices set up by men occupying managerial positions.

Ms Teague, whose first job was at the Co-operative Bank head office in Manchester, said the Commission is trying to make a business case for gender diversity, arguing that more gender equality could be key to improving performance, accessing the widest talent pool and being more responsive to the market.

According to Ms Teague, current rates suggest it would take 70 years to achieve gender balance in the UK. She said the Commission is trying to put pressure on companies across the UK in order to ensure that companies are looking for flexible working times and implementing new approaches to recruitment, monitoring and reporting on gender representation.

She referred to Lord Davies’ 'Women on Boards' review, saying that one of the recommendations of the review had been to set up longer-term sustainability targets. The Commission is also working with Ernst and Young to develop national equality standards.

Ms Teague said that with 37 per cent of women directors (as opposed to 13 per cent in other companies), the top retail co-opreatives are leading the way towards more gender equality. She also praised co-ops for establishing  Women’s Challenge, saying that the campaign is crucial to addressing the issue of gender balance.

Since Women’s Challenge was launched in 2011 — a partnership between the Co-operative Group and Co-operatives UK — considerable progress has been achieved, with 37.1 per cent of women board members within the North Region and 26.6per cent within regional boards.

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