Despite signs of progress in gender equality over the past 15 years, there is still a significant gap between women and men in terms of job opportunities and quality of employment, according to the International Labour Office (ILO). In turn, women have always had a strong presence in worker cooperatives given that this business model combines economic viability and social responsibility.

The agro-tourism women’s cooperative TO Kastri, is an example. Since 2000, Anna Darzenta and 27 active housewives came together to begin working outside the home and opened their own catering company in the Greek island of Syros where there is high unemployment. The EQUAL program for female entrepreneurs, funded through the European Social Fund, has helped them. "With an egalitarian ethos, participatory decision-making, common ownership and commitment to goals beyond the motive of profit, cooperatives are expanding opportunities for women in local economies and societies throughout the world", declared UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at the occasion of last year’s International Day of Cooperatives, for which the motto was 'Cooperative enterprises empower women'.

About gender equality, he also underlines that the cooperative approach is not only an economically sustainable model, but also an enterprise system in which there are equality indicators between men and women above the rest of the business formulas. According to the Spanish Confederation of Worker Cooperatives (COCETA), 49% of people in worker cooperatives are women. Amongst them, 39% have directors’ positions, though in other enterprises which do not adopt this model, the percentage of women that work in these positions is barely 6%.

Innova Vegetalia del Mar

In Italy, according to ANCPL-Legacoop, the presence of women in worker cooperatives in the fashion industry is 95%, a significant example is the cooperative Stienta CAPA (Rovigo), consisting of around 100 workers who are nearly all members, in a leading producer of the Dolce & Gabbana range which conducts an annual turnover of more than three million euros. In others sectors where there are fewer women, such as the metalworks, chemical and paper production sector had a 20% of female presence in directors’ positions.

In addition, during the last six years the female presence in the manufacturing sector has increased significantly from both the qualitative and quantitative point of view. The New Zealand China Friendship Society (NZCFS), and the International Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives (ICCIC), have begun a project with Shaanxi Province Women's Federation, focused on encouraging Chinese women in cooperatives. The first phase of training has finished, and vice chair of ICCIC, Dave Bromwich, believes that “cooperatives give women an opportunity to lead, and help them to develop confidence in themselves”.

While the world economy is facing difficult challenges, cooperatives provide a valuable service to many women, especially those in vulnerable communities. The cooperative business model is more resilient in a crisis situation compared to capitalistic companies because of the very fact that those workers are the owners of the company and therefore, it is a model which prevails over individual capital and in which profits are shared with a collective approach.

by Leire Luengo for Work Together