How are co-ops driving gender equality?

Co-ops and Mutuals Wales held an online event with contributors including Central Co-op, Cwmpas, Co-op News and Co-operatives UK

The co-operative movement needs women and women need the co-op movement’, was the key message of an online event held last month by Co-ops and Mutuals Wales.

Held on the International Day of Co-operatives, the event featured a presentation by Debbie Robinson, chief executive of Central Co-operative, who talked about her society’s initiatives to empower women. 

She described some of the challenges facing female staff at the society’s stores, such as having their Universal Credit gradually cut the more they earn, which prevents some from taking on more hours.

“The Universal Credit system is broken and it does not allow people to progress,” she said, calling this “the biggest barrier for women in the UK today”. 

Central is working to increase the share of women in leadership roles in its food and funeral divisions, said Robinson. To push this along, the society has recently begun to offer debt-free degrees to colleagues can apply and is offering apprenticeships.

Some of these ideas were further explored by a round-table moderated by Cheryl Barrott, vice-chair of Co-operatives UK.

Discussing her experience as a social entrepreneur, Co-operatives UK CEO Rose Marley highlighted figures showing that in 2013, 38% of social businesses in the UK were led by women, twice as many as traditional businesses. Marley told how she witnessed injustices when she worked in the entertainment industry which made her want to start a social business to make a difference. Now, at Co-operatives UK, she works closely with other women, she said.

Related: Canadian Co-op Congress looks at inclusivity in co-ops

Bethan Webber, chief executive of Welsh co-op development agency Cwmpas, highlighted the impact of the pandemic on women in Wales. Women are the “shock absorbers of poverty”, she said: around 60% of those living below the living wage are women. She agreed that the current welfare system undermines people’s ability to progress and work more hours and said inflation had an impact on a lot of areas women are still responsible for, such as managing budgets for food, energy or fuel. Co-op models could help to address these challenges, she added, arguing that the 2015 Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act provides a framework for co-ops to tackle the situation in Wales.

Ann Francis, CEO of Cambrian Credit Union, described the role of the credit union sector in supporting women across Wales, while Mary Ann Brocklesby, leader of Monmouthshire County Council, highlighted the role of co-ops in addressing the cost of living crisis.

“When co-ops work well the balance between household commitments, caring commitments, other responsibilities and women for women is there,” she said.

The event also looked at how co-ops can encourage more women to apply for leadership roles. As one of the panellists, I shared the example of the Global Women’s Leadership Network, which focuses on growing the pipeline of women credit union leaders. I also talked about the role of co-ops in enabling informal workers to formalise, transforming their activities into legally protected work, fully integrated into the mainstream economy. 

Pat Juby of Co-ops & Mutuals Wales said co-ops had from the very start been set up to address social injustices – a purpose as relevant today as it was in 1844. Yet, she said, “all too often they are described as a secret society”.

“We need to start shouting loud and proud.”