Strategies for Shared Power Between Men and Women in Co-operatives

    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
                         July, 1996

Source : Review of International Co-operation Vol.89, No
1/1996, 28-38.

          Strategies for Shared Power Between Men
                and Women in Co-operatives
                  by Katarina Apelqvist*

The Power Gap
For generations women have played a vital, but invisible, role
in co-operatives nationally. They have constituted the loyal
and hardworking backbone of the movement, enabling its growth
and progress.

However,  they have been, and still are, kept in subordinate
roles, expected to work silently and with very little reward,
safely restricted from status and power.

Women's lack of power in co-operatives at the national level
has been embarrassingly obvious in the decision-making bodies
of the International Co-operative Alliance and its specialised

Women's contributions have only recently begun to receive
recognition. And very few, still, realise the acute need for
women's experiences, skills and values to influence the daily
as well as strategic decisions shaping the future of
co-operatives. It is a very long way to go before men and
women share power in co-operatives nationally. It will take
even longer to see a gender integrated international
co-operative movement.

Power issues have a major bearing on this article.  I use the
word deliberately.

It is always interesting to note reactions to the word power. 
Most men, and the few women, who have power, deny the fact.
Women, mostly lacking in power, deny that they have a wish to
achieve it.

I believe that these reactions stem from the fact that we have
become accustomed to power being used negatively - to
segregate and repress. But power in its essence only means
influence - and can be used positively to uplift and unite. 

However, women must realise that power, as it has been
traditionally weilded, is not relinquished easily, especially
not by those who deny having power. Power has to be taken -
not by force, violence and war, the way it has been and is
done by men in many countries. Power can also be taken
peacefully, by determined strategies and positive actions.

Theory and Reality
If we look at the current picture there is a considerable
difference between the theoretical and practical aspects of
women's situation in co-operatives. The theoretical aspects
are based on values and principles of 150 years' standing,
which were reformulated at the ICA's Centennial Congress in
Manchester in September 1995.                                  
My analysis of the practical aspects of women's situation in
co-operatives world-wide is based on limited statistical
examples from countries in four global regions. The relevant
facts and reliable statistics on gender issues in the
co-operative movement are either very difficult to access or
non existent. I cannot vouch for the complete accuracy of the
figures in my examples, but I think they are interesting!

In ICA's Statement on the Co-operative Identity a co-operative
is defined as:

"A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united
voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and
cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and
democratically controlled enterprise."

The values of co-operatives are stated as follows:

"Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help,
self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and
solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative
members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness,
social responsibility, and caring for others."

And the first and second principles state:

"Co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all
persons able to use their services and willing to accept the
responsibilities of membership, without gender, social,
racial, political, or religious discrimination."

"Co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by
their members, who actively participate in setting their
policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as
elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In
primary co-operatives members have equal voting rights (one
member, one vote), and co-operatives at other levels are also
organised in a democratic manner."

There can be no doubt that, in theory, co-operation offers the
opportunity to meet financial needs. In other words
co-operation makes it possible, not least of all for women, to
earn a living in a world where:

*    70% of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty are women

*    Women's unpaid contribution  to the global economy is
     estimated at 11 trillion US Dollars a year.

*    Throughout the world unemployment is higher among women
     than men.

*    The number of households headed by women is increasing

35%  of households in the Caribbean
4%   of households in industrialised    countries
21%  in Latin America
20%  in sub-Saharan Africa
18%  in south-east Asia and Oceania

Nor can there be any doubt that women need the support of
co-operatives to meet social needs in a world where:

*    Women in many countries lack access to reproductive
     health and other health services.

*    Women outnumber men 2 to 1 in illiteracy.

*    60% of the 130 million children denied access to primary
     school are girls.

*    Women often live isolated from basic amenities and
     services in rural areas and urban slums.

*    Women work longer hours than men, two thirds of those
     hours unpaid.

*    Women take the main responsibility for the home, children
     and the elderly. (50% of the aged live in extended
     households in Brazil and Hong Kong, 20% in France and 10%
     in the Netherlands).

*    Women invariably take responsibility for community
     activities without financial reward, acknowledgement or
Most people would also agree that co-operation, in theory,
provides marvellous opportunities for women to fulfill
cultural needs to develop themselves to the best of their
abilities. It should also meet women's aspirations to decide
upon and shape enterprises' day-to-day activities and futures
with others.

In theory co-operation has always been as open to women as it
is to men. In theory co-operative organisations have been
democratic and built upon the active participation of their

There are also striking similarities between co-operative
values and women's typical ways of conceptualising and
working. To my knowledge women's cultures are characterised by
self-help, self-reliance, democracy, equality, equity and
solidarity. Women believe in the ethical values of honesty,
openness, social responsibility and caring for others - and
invariably act accordingly.

How does women's participation in co-operative democracy look
in practice? How does this picture of the theoretical
co-operative world match with the current real co-operative

Brief Statistical Overview
Let's look a little more closely at some countries in Asia,
Africa, Central America and Europe. Once again let me
underline that there is a lack of reliable figures.

In Japan women constitute about 95% of the consumer
co-operative membership. The allocation of management tasks,
however, does not reflect this.  At the primary level, 66% of
the directors are women, mostly working part-time. They are
usually involved in organising member activities.  Male
directors are responsible for management and decision-making.
At secondary level  only 6% of directors are women  and at the
national level, only 2 out of 33 members of the JCCU board of
directors are women.  

(Source: Momoe Tatsukawa: Japanese co-operatives'efforts in
addressing Gender Issues,1993).

60% of people working in Japan's agriculture are women but
less than 13% of the formal union members of agricultural
co-operatives are. Slightly more than 0.1% of the directors
are women.

(Source: We are members of JA, 1995).

In Malaysia there are  30-40% women members in mixed
co-operatives, about 10% on boards and very few managers. In
school co-operatives  50% of the participants are girls. 

(Rahaiah bt Baheran, Country report 1995).

Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka  nearly 50% of all co-op  members  are women. At
Branch Committee level 20% are women, at General Body level 5%
and on the Board of Directors 2% 

(Source: Preema Shanthi Sooriyarachchy: Country report, 1995).

Out of a total membership of 2.1 million in Sri Lankan
multi-purpose co-operatives 35% are women. Legal provision has
been made to reserve two of the seven directorships in these
co-operatives for women.

(Source: Upali Herath:An overview of Gender Integration and
Women in Cooperative Development in Asia and the Pacific,

In Singapore women form only about 5% of the total membership
of 575.000 co-operators.
(Chong Wee Yin: Country report, 1993).

Women constitute 4.8% of the membership in agricultural
co-operatives, 21.3% in consumer co-ops, 45.2% in industrial 
co-ops and 46.4% in credit unions.

11.1% of the members in agricultural co-operatives are women.

In Panama 74.3% of the membership in agricultural
co-operatives are women, 42.5% in credit unions, 37.5% in
housing co-ops and 29% in consumer co-ops.

El Salvador
In consumer co-operatives women constitute 57.3% of the
members and in agricultural co-operatives 11.2%.

In Guatemala you find the highest percentage of women in
industrial co-operatives, 42.8%, and the lowest in
agricultural co-operatives, 6.3%. In housing co-operatives
19.3% are women and in consumer co-ops 11.9%.

In all Central American countries you find few women managers
and few women at top level and in boards.  

Tanzanian women produce 75% of the co-operative movement's
marketed agricultural products per year yet only 10% of them
are registered as members in rural areas. Women's
participation in management at the primary and union levels is
(Source: Bernadette Wanyonyi: African Women Perspectives and
Reflection on Future Trends, 1995).

Zambian  women constitute 70% of the rural population but only
25% of the co-operative membership. At local co-operative
level 11% of women have leadership positions and 1% of women
at  national level.
(Source:  Chieftainess Christine Chiyaba & Matondo Monde Yeta:
Country report, 1994).

In Finland 70.7% of the members and 74% of the employees in
the Consumer Co-operative Elanto are women. 62.7% of its
Council of Representatives, 46.6% of its Supervisory Board and
37.5% of the Board of Directors are women. In the Consumer
Co-operative Tradeka, women constitute 52.1% of members, 85%
of employees, 38.4% of Representatives, 36.3% of Supervisory
Board and 18.2% of the Board of Directors.

In the Producer Co-operative Finn Coop Pellervo 22.4% of
membership, 26.4% of Council of Representatives, 7.4% of
Supervisory Board and 0% of Board of Directors are women. 
(Source: Raija Itkonen: Women in Co-operatives, 1995).

In Russia there are 4.5 thousand consumer co-operatives with
12 million members and l million workers, 70% of whom are
(Source: Galina Kisseleva: Country report, 1995).

In Lithuania 69% of the total number of employees working in
the co-operative movement are women. Among managers and at top
level there are few women. 
(Source: ICA Statement,The Contribution of Co-operatives to
the Advancement of Women in the ECE Region, 1994).

In Ukraine women account for 71% of employees but among
managers and at top level you will find few women. (Source:
ICA Statement The Contribution of Co-operatives to the
Advancement of Women in the ECE Region, 1994).

The table below gives figures available from the area of
Credit Unions:

                    Women members       Percentage

Bangladesh               18,780              27%
Costa Rica               96,000              48%
El Salvador              19,617              55%
Ethiopia                 35,428              32%
Ghana                    15,283              30%
Great Britain            62,000              54%
Grenada                   7,636              51%
Guyana                    8,950              37%
Korea                 1,690,769              45%
Malawi                    6,752              28% 
New Zealand              51,000              44%
Peru                     21,831              22%
Philippines              67,580              58%
Russia                    5,148              60%
Seychelles                4,364              55%
Sierra Leone              1,151              39%
Singapore                 3,000               9%
Sri Lanka               436,629              51%
Tortola                      79              59%
Zambia                   94,000              53%

(Source: Perspectives 3rd Quarter, 1995)

The figures I have just listed exemplify that in many
countries, especially in developing countries, where women are
the backbone for production in agriculture they constitute an
alarming minority in rural co-operatives. The figures also
show  that, irrespective of country, co-operatives are
essentially managed by men. In fact, gender imbalance in
co-operatives is one of the most striking contradictions
between co-operative theory and practice, weakening
co-operative identity, credibility and the possibilities to
fulfill co-operative purpose. The present co-operative order
has been engineered by men, for men. Consequently it is based
on male values, norms and priorities.

Admittedly there are women within these male hierarchies but
their influence and opportunities for development are
restricted. Furthermore, their salaries are lower than men's
even when they do the same and comparable work.

Co-operation has improved many people's living conditions
considerably but it has seldom taken women's specific needs
and conditions into account. Until less than a decade ago, on
the few occasions when women's needs have been specifically
addressed, it has been as an act of charity rather than
recognition of the fact that there is no sustainable social
and economic growth without their contribution. Women's 
perspectives are still virtually excluded from the formulation
of co-operatives' strategic decisions.

Why does co-operation in practice so directly contradict
co-operative values and principles?
The answer is simple but a shameful reflection on the
co-operative movement nevertheless: The historical contempt
and repression of women which has characterised our cultures
and societies are just as firmly entrenched in the
co-operative movement. Women have been regarded as being of
less value than men in every respect. This is a viewpoint that
the co-operative movement in both industrialised and
developing countries has yet to abandon.

Women's needs and ways of life have been ignored based on the
dual assumptions that only men's needs should be taken into
account and that this would automatically benefit women and

Legislation in many countries still excludes women from
co-operative membership. They are excluded because of laws and
statutes which stipulate that only landowners and heads of
households can become members.

In some countries women are not allowed to own land or
officially head households. The fact that a woman is de facto
head of family is not seen as justification for membership.
Women are denied opportunities to take loans in banks and
credit  unions for the same reasons in even more  countries.
Religious and other cultural traditions create additional
insurmountable obstacles in many developing countries.

In addition to all of this women have to cope with heavy and
time-consuming responsibilities for the home and their
children. The latter also create obstacles for women in
industrialised countries who are trying to make a career for
themselves on men's conditions.

Organisations and meetings are shaped by male norms and demand
formality, observation of rank and hierarchical structure,
thus creating obstacles to women's participation,
opportunities to develop and to exercise influence.

Task allocation and skills development in co-operatives today
are predominantly hierarchical and male-favouring. Women are
not given the same opportunities as men for basic training and
higher education in such areas as finance, technology and

During recruitment and promotion women seem to be invisible to
men and in cases where they cannot be made invisible the norms
for selection favour men anyway. "Male" skills and experience
are highly valued and "female " skills and experience are
undervalued, if valued at all. Assessments based on "Personal
chemistry" also come into the picture. Such assessments almost
exclusively favour male co-workers, buddies, chums.

Time for Change
It is high time for the co-operative movement to make women
and women's work and values visible. Co-operatives must
realise the acute need for women's ability, skills and wisdom
at all levels. It is high time to let women's way of thinking
and working influence co-operative organisational structure
and decision-making.

Women have a non-hierarchical approach to organising work.
Collaboration and flexibility are preferred to male-oriented
competition and climbing the hierarchical ladder, discussion
is preferred to giving and receiving orders. Allocation of
tasks is skills-related rather than related to the job title
or position of the person carrying them out.

Women prefer discussions in an informal atmosphere, presenting
personal experiences and giving concrete examples. They have a
holistic view of problems and their solutions.

Decision-making by consensus is important to women. Decisions
made by consensus elicit stronger motivation and
accountability as well as more reliable and quicker

What changes are necessary if co-operative values and
principles are to be transformed from mere rhetoric to
Gender discriminatory elements must be eradicated from
co-operative legislation and statutes. But that's not enough -
legislation and statutes must also be formulated on the basis
of women's practical and strategic needs. Co-operative
legislation and statutes must become supportive of women and
women's concerns.

Co-operation must implement campaigns more widely through
information packs, conferences and seminars directed at women
and underlining women's legal and co-operative rights and
opportunities. In addition to this the campaigns must take
women's conditions and language into account, addressing needs
and concerns with which women can identify. Such campaigns can
have a wide range of objectives such as encouraging women to:

*    Join co-operatives
*    Start pre-co-operatives
*    Apply for training
*    Apply for promotion

Discriminatory gender-blind, or rather women-blind, paragraphs
in co-operative information and training materials (management
and leadership training, finance, technology etc.) must be
removed and both the structure and contents based on women's
experiences and concerns as well as men's. In all education
and training, gender analysis must be included aiming at
realigned gender roles in the family, work and society.

Similarly - recruitment, employment, education, training,
promotion and salary setting policies must be thoroughly
The co-operative movement must also try to actively oppose the
cutbacks in social welfare which are being imposed everywhere.
These cutbacks hit women's reproductive and productive
interests particularly hard. Within its own organisation
co-operatives must carefully monitor the service and
conditions which have been achieved and try to extend them
further in an effort to compensate for the weakening within
society's social sector.

One of the most important changes needed, as I have already
pointed out, is the dismantling of the hierarchical and
bureaucratic structures within co-operatives which stop women,
and in fact also men, developing and contributing to their
organisations to the best of their abilities. True democracy
is impossible without equality between women and men. Equality
between women and men is an impossibility in hierarchical
structures based upon male norms, male power and dominance
over women.

Maximising opportunities for equality between women and men
and true democracy in co-operatives requires  radical changes.
The first pre-condition of change is to surface hidden
structures. Without making visible what is really happening to
women and men in existing structures there will be no
motivation for change.

But surfacing hidden structures and their consequences is not
enough. There is also a need for competence for change. A
skills development for change program should be characterized
by the holistic perception with which it is hoped that future
goals  and methods of working will be hallmarked. If the
outcome is to be successful, those involved must influence and
decide the content of training and the design of the change
process from a gender perspective themselves.

Such a program could include, for example:

*    Professional skills and ethics (economics, technology,
     marketing, leadership, administration, information/
     motivation, organisation, job evaluation)

*    Physical development (health aspects, body awareness/
     ideals, health profiles) 

*    Psychological development (self-understanding,
     professional identity, family identity/role,
     self-confidence, attitude change)

*    Group development (participation, responsibility,
     communications training, differences in language and
     communication styles, conflict management, group

Gender analysis and gender awareness should be integral
elements in all parts of the program.

Experience of today's male work structures has taught us that
the process of change is a complex and often slow-moving

However,  we cannot wait to see radical changes happen. The
co-operative movement cannot afford it, if we want to maintain
our identity and credibility and our possibilities to fulfill
co-operative purpose!

After my more than 30 years of persistent  work to promote
equality between women and men in the co-operative movement I
am more than ever before convinced that we need two keys to
open the heavy door blocking our way to achieve equality.
These keys are networking and quotas.

I have heard it said many times that quotas are undemocratic.
However, this objection to quotas is only raised when quotas
are discussed as an affirmative action to achieve equality
between women and men.

The objection is certainly never raised, for example, in
politics when giving  a certain number of parliamentary seats
to regions and counties in order to achieve a geographical
balance. To my mind there is no democracy without women - who
constitute more than 50% of most countries' population - 
having an equal share in influencing their own lives, other's
lives and the development of society.

I have also been told that quotas are unfair and risky because
sex is a determining factor, not competence. I say that
competent women are not being recognized and that competent
women are being rejected. Incompetent men are taking their

In an overview of equality world-wide the UN has stated that
Sweden, together with other Nordic countries, is in the
forefront with 43.3% women MPs and 50% women cabinet
ministers. The deciding factor in the progress which has been
made is the implementation of quotas! Sweden's largest
political party, the Social Democrat Party, introduced an
"every alternate candidate must be a woman" campaign for
nominations for party candidates before the last election. The
same quotas were applied during the selection  of ministers to
the Social Democrat Government. Two other parties used similar
guide-lines when electing Members of Parliament.               
Quotas also lie behind the current balance between sexes in
the Norwegian Parliament and Government, which as we know has
a woman Prime Minister.

What does networking mean, then?                               
I guess you can have many different answers to that question.
But this is my definition, a definition given also by
thousands of women in countries all over the world:

A women's network is a non-hierarchical  - flat - voluntary
organisation. There is no board and no posts to be
distributed. All members of the network are of equal value and
the work is based on teamwork instead of competition. All
members are encouraged to contribute ideas, take initiatives
and to share responsibility.

Women start networks to pool knowledge and information, to
support each other individually and collectively to learn from
each other and to bring about change. The ultimate goal for
most women's networks is to achieve equality between women and
men in the workplace, in the family and in society.

Let me highlight the benefits of networks:

Firstly: Networks provide results through collaboration.
Networks can do things which can't be done by an individual.
That means that very important initiatives can be taken and
implemented through the efforts of a network.

Secondly: Networks provide information which cannot be
accessed and pooled in the same way elsewhere. It is vital to
understand that when you have a good, trusting network -
prestige and territorialism do not exist. You have access to
each other's  experience and knowledge. This inspires new
ideas, fosters personal development, and boosts energy and

Thirdly: On the emotional side networks provide feedback and
support, which are essential to all of us so that we feel that
we have been seen and heard. Women are often made invisible in
male structures.  Their contributions are not acknowledged,
they have to fight to establish credibility. This results in
low self-esteem. Within networks self-esteem, belief in one's
own competence and assertiveness are nourished.

Fourthly: Networks provide a place to be yourself. You are
able to show what you are feeling. You have someone to share
your anger, your hopes and your fears with.

Finally, networks breed strong women who have the confidence
to take on new tasks and the role of leaders. However, female
leaders working in isolation surrounded by a majority of men
need the continued support of their networks. The pressure to
adjust to male values and norms is extreme. Without the
communication and support of network sisters many women will
compromise or give in completely.

With or without networks it is very difficult for them to
stand alone. And they will remain alone as long as quotas are
not enforced.

We need networking to achieve quotas. We need quotas and
networking to be able to codevelop a co-operative movement for
women and men on equal terms.                                  
I want to advocate the use of networking and quotas to empower

I want to advocate bringing co-operative practice into line
with co-operative theory and aspirations!

Through integrating women's values, skills and experiences in
the application of the co-operative concept, a democratic
microcosm of society can be developed, where mutual concern
and economic and social security thrive. 

*Ms. Apelqvist is Chairwoman of the ICA Global Women's