International Women’s Day: Women co-operators share their journeys

‘Co-operation is not a noun it is a verb, a process of being, putting principle six in action, seeking to change the world,’ says Dorothy Francis

This year’s International Women’s Day, held on 8 March, was themed Balance for Better and saw the co-op movement highlight its contribution.

As people-based enterprises, co-operatives can play a key role in helping to build a balanced world. To discuss how this can apply to gender equality, on 7 March women from across the UK co-operative movement gathered for a meeting in Sutton Coldfield.

The event was hosted by Central England Co-operative as part of the Co-operative Women’s Voices, a series of spaces for women in co-ops to meet, learn and share experiences.

Dorothy Francis
Dorothy Francis posing with a cardboard model from the 50 Fantastic Females Exhibition, (Photo: Alex Cantrill-Jones / ACJ Media)

“Co-operation is not a noun, it is a verb, a process of being, putting principle 6 in action, seeking to change the world,” said Dorothy Francis who, in 2017, was awarded an MBE for “services to enterprise and the communities of Leicester and Leicestershire”.

Ms Francis is chief executive of Leicester-based Co-operative and Social Enterprise Development Agency (CASE). “Co-operatives have been my entire adult life,” she said.

She talked about her experience growing up in the UK in a Jamaican family and being taught to co-operate, share everything with her siblings and stand up for each other.

In Jamaica co-ops are a common way of organising, whether by selling produce collectively or getting loans from credit unions.

Yet in the 1970s, running a business was not an option for young women; they were not given the opportunity. This prompted Ms Francis to pursue her work at CASE, promoting business to women, especially women of colour and in newly arrived communities.

She has helped over 200 enterprises to start, develop and realise their potential. Her work led to her winning the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016 and becoming a Companion of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI).

Co-op Group member nominated director Margaret Casely-Hayford also shared some of the hurdles she faced during her career, such as being told by a chemistry teacher that she would become a housewife.

This, she said, drove her to achieve more, following the motto “I can, I will, just watch me”. She left school with A levels and worked in local government before studying a law degree at Oxford University.

She then joined Denton Hall Law Firm (now SNR Denton) in 1987 where she was made partner in 1998.

Later on, she became head of legal services at the John Lewis Partnership, where she played a key role in engaging with the government to redraft legislation for employee-owned businesses, securing tax relief for bonuses paid to employees in 2014.

She now chairs the board of Shakespeare’s Globe and is chancellor of Coventry University.

In 2008 The Black Power List named the Casely-Hayfords the most influential black family in the UK and in 2014 she was named Black British Business Person of the Year.

Elaine Dean, Barbada Rainford and Debbie Robinson
Elaine Dean, president of Central England Co-op, Barbara Rainford of Midcounties Co-op and Debbie Robinson, CEO of Central England Co-op (Photo: Alex Cantrill-Jones / ACJ Media)

Women co-operators also heard from Debbie Robinson, newly appointed chief executive of Central England Co-operative. She shared her journey, highlighting that she had chosen to focus on the positive aspects rather than on the difficulties faced as a woman in the retail sector.

“Today we have been able to talk about things that we don’t usually talk about. I would like all of us to be the change that we want to happen. You’ll be the only person that stops you from doing that,” she told the audience.

Central England president Elaine Dean highlighted that the society had a 50-50% gender balance on its board.

Employee director Tanya Noon added: “It’s important that we continue to highlight the role women play in co-ops, building on the heritage of both men and women. It’s imperative that we continue to do this and inspire future generations to be the guardians of co-op values and principles.”

In addition to presentations and workshops, the event featured Elaine Pantling in a performance as Leicester suffragette Alice Hawkins.