It cannot be ignored that gender is largely overlooked

“We are searching for the best candidate … the chairman will be completely independent.” This is a statement from a Co-operative Group spokesman on the organisation’s future governance...

“We are searching for the best candidate … the chairman will be completely independent.” This is a statement from a Co-operative Group spokesman on the organisation’s future governance structure to the Guardian newspaper last month.

But, astute readers may notice a slight problem with the above statement.  The role of chair’man’ does not exist in our new rules – the chair does, and the position is currently held by Ursula Lidbetter.  This points to a deeply rooted culture of gender bias that the Women’s Challenge was set up to address nearly four years ago.

Yes, the Women’s Challenge – whatever happened to that? In the sometimes heated debate over rule changes, the aim of mainstreaming gender within our governance structure seems to have dropped off the agenda. The only references to gender within the new rules are in Rule 45c (ii), where the nominations committee has to ‘consider’ gender balance among a list of other considerations, and Rule 85, where the Council has to ‘seek to ensure’ diversity, including gender balance.

The current commitment in the 2013-15 Ethical Plan that the ‘Group board will be a minimum of 40% female by 2018’ seems to be left to chance. The figure is currently 11% with the transitional board in place.

Future arrangements do not look healthy either – as currently proposed, the new transitional council will have 95 members (unless some resign), 31 (calculated from existing values and principles committees, regional boards and those not included on the transitional board) of whom will be women. Our current chair is the only woman who appears in three of the top four transitional structures agreed at a recent Co-operative Group board meeting: the Group board; the remuneration committee; and the transitional search committee. There is no woman on the audit and risk committee, food board, and only one, an IPNED, on the specialist businesses board.

Against these numbers has to be the fact that over two thirds of members who economically engage with our businesses are women. This takes the discussion beyond diversity. It is about member representation.

Anyone who followed the ‘Let’s Talk’ discussions online will have noted the active role in the discussion taken by women members around issues that are important to them. If we are to seriously consider ourselves to be a consumer co-operative, it is about time that our governance structures at all levels represent our membership.

As a values-based business, we cannot afford to ignore the fact that the gender of our membership is largely overlooked within our new constitution.

It is therefore of key importance that the transitional board and council take gender mainstreaming forward as a key priority in the development of our new governance.

There are those who would argue that gender balance is relatively unimportant in comparison to turning round the business. I think they are wrong. There is plenty of evidence that shows that monocultural boards can fall prey to ‘group-think’, leading to the financial disasters that impacted on the Co-operative Group (as well as the banking system).

An area committee member interviewed as part of research undertaken in Scotland in 2013 said: “The gender balance in favour of men in the higher committees is shocking – I couldn’t believe the boys’ club which seems to go unchallenged and is so obvious.”

Let’s change that under the new rules.

• Alison Lamond was involved in the management of the Women’s Challenge Project 2020 for the Co-operative Group and helped develop a 10 year action plan to promote fair gender representation.

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