We often hear news stories that highlight the role of cooperatives in favour of gender equality. For example, in a news article published by Coceta (Spanish Confederation of Worker Cooperatives) a year ago stated that in 2022 58% of associated worker cooperatives were set up by women. It emphasized that "cooperative functioning based on democratic participation and collective management contributes to a smaller gender gap than in commercial enterprises".

Additionally, the Gender Equality Committee of the International Cooperative Alliance ICA-GEC) declared for International Women's Day 2023 that cooperatives are pioneers in the fight against gender inequalities and the digital divide. In fact, cooperative values and principles provide a strong space to generate debates and fundamental changes to address this inequality.

Closer to home, the evolution and progress of society is reflected in laws and regulations. As Gaminde (2023) points out, Law 11/2019 on Cooperatives in the Basque Country establishes some new developments regarding the treatment of women in these organisations:

  • The use of a non-sexist language/terminology with the aim of giving visibility to both sexes in the messages conveyed and thus advancing towards effective gender equality.
  • It is established, in general terms, that a balanced presence of female members in cooperative bodies must be sought, as well as the establishment of gender equality measures, especially those aimed at reconciling personal, family and working life (art. 32.4).
  • In regulating the composition of the Governing Council, a balanced representation of men and women is expressly advocated, as in some of the aforementioned regional regulations (Art. 47.6).
  • Education on equality is also promoted in the application of surpluses, mentioning among the possible public interest purposes of the compulsory contributions to this specific Fund "the training and education of members and workers with the aim of moving towards equality of women and men" (Art. 72. 1 f).

It is more than evident that gender equality is present in the life of cooperatives from the very beginning.

I was interesting to read a summary of the conference on "Women in Basque cooperativism" organised by the UEU, Farapi and Lanki, as part of the 51st edition of the Basque Summer University. At this conference, female members of cooperatives gave a recap of the last 6 decades and shared their experiences. The evolution of the conditions and expectations expressed by the participants about how they have related to their cooperative experiences is clear. Cooperatives have evolved along with society.

From a militant attitude that supports the incorporation of women into paid work in the 60s, 70s and 80s ("cooperativism taught us that it was possible to live differently and that was empowering"), through cooperatives in the 90s and 2000s to promote equality ("We started on the inside with the transformation: for example, we stopped categorising toys for girls and toys for boys to in the Christmas leaflet"), to the present day understanding of cooperatives as tools for social transformation ("Our values contribute to cooperativism: teamwork, social transformation, critical vision and feminism, and we promote working models in this way").

In line with this evolution, I ask myself if cooperatives will be able to change with society in a globalised context? Or will it be the cooperatives that change society in this globalised context? These are complex questions to which we will have the answer in a few decades' time.

Personally, I have no doubt that cooperatives, true to their mission, will continue to lead the promotion of women's equality both in the workplace and in society in general.

jabier retegi

Jabier Retegi

Jabier Retegi, Senior Associated Researcher at Orkestra, holds a PhD in Engineering from the UPC, Engineer specialising in Industrial Organisation and holding an MSc in Applied Sciences (M.Sc.A.) both from the Engineering School of Montreal and Mechanical Engineer from MU.

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