Women in Co-operatives: A Canadian Perspective (1996)

    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.2/1996, p.26-33)

       Women in Co-operatives: A Canadian Perspective
               by Dr. Lou Hammond Ketilson*

To address equitable representation in democratic and staff
structures is right and proper in itself. It is also more than
that. When co-operatives deal with issues that cluster around
equity, they address questions that have to do with how
co-operative organizations `do democracy', and how they do
business. A study that addresses the status of women in
co-operatives does not arrive at just a set of `women's
issues' but rather at ways to think about a range of issues
vital to co-operatives, their placement in the economy and the
community. In other words, thinking about equity in democratic
and management structures is one of a number of `ways in' to
thinking about the relevance and effectiveness of
co-operatives in general. It is also a way to begin
considering barriers that affect all under-represented groups.

The research1 described in this paper was conducted under the
auspices of the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives,
University of Saskatchewan. The broad aim of the project was
to uncover and document helps and hindrances women have
encountered in their experience as elected officials and as
employees in decision making positions in Canadian
co-operatives. This was accomplished through two methods, case
studies and a survey. 

Individuals in staff and elected positions in five
co-operatives located in various regions of Canada
participated in the case studies. The co-operatives included
first tier or primary co-operatives as well as federations,
associations or centrals. They were: Co-op Atlantic,
Co-operative Housing Association of Ontario, Saskatchewan
Wheat Pool, Calgary Co-operative Association, and Van City
Savings and Credit Union. In addition, a survey of all members
of the Canadian Co-operative Association (C.C.A.)2, the C.C.A.
itself, and each case study co-operative, was conducted to
develop baseline data on women's participation as elected
officials and employees. 

Findings and Recommendations
The recommendations presented here are drawn from information
gathered through the research project, which focused on
uncovering helps and hindrances to women in decision making
positions. They suggest ways co-operative organizations can
build on the successes and address the barriers the study

Elected Group: Build on Positive Experiences
Various training grounds exist from which people later move to
positions as delegates or board members. Participants
emphasized several ways in which early experience, in
organizations and in other aspects of their lives, equipped
them for their positions. It allowed them to: develop a
profile among the membership; see how others fulfill their
leadership roles, and to envision themselves in the same
positions; prepare for the politics of elected bodies; and,
become familiar with the organization, thus reducing the
intimidation factor associated with holding an elected office.

-    Communicate, through public documents and personal
     behaviour, recognition of the value and relevance of
     previous experience, including experience traditionally
     associated with women's lives, which candidates bring to
     elected roles.

-    Actively recruit members of under-represented groups to
     committees and to the board. Encourage preparation for
     elected roles through committee membership. 

-    Identify avenues for members to develop a visible
     profile, and encourage candidates from under-represented
     groups to take advantage of these. Examples are:
     committee positions; community projects and other special
     projects; member relations initiatives which link the
     organization more closely with under-represented groups.

-    Support committee members in their roles by establishing
     terms of reference and by having past chairs orient new
     chairs to the job.

Elected officials draw support from knowing they are involved
with an organization that works toward, or has the potential
to work toward, goals that are consistent with their own. 

-    Through member orientation and communication, work to
     address members' perceptions of the organization overall.
     Be clear about the co-operative's profile of its services,
     its relevance.

Learning is Bonus
The learning, both formal and informal, which accompanies the
responsibility of elected office is not only a necessity which
enables people to serve properly; it is also a personal
benefit. This learning ranges from financial management to
leadership, confidence, and group dynamics. 

-    Publicize the opportunities an elected position presents
     for people to learn new skills and to broaden their

-    Offer training which deals not only with the specific
     organization, but which also places the organization
     within the larger co-operative and credit union movement
     as a whole.

-    Clarify board and management roles through training,
     clear communication processes and terms of reference.

Sources of Support
There were many instances where women were not optimistic
about the climate of support for women in their organizations
as a whole, but most could identify key individuals on staff
and on the board who recruit women and/or help to create a
climate that supports women. Important support comes from
personal contact with committed women and men who are active
locally, regionally, and nationally in the co-operative
movement, and from other women who introduce new board members
to how things are done. Family members and employers are
essential sources of support. Those who have less flexible
work or family lives feel additional pressure.

-    Show leadership at the senior level to create a climate
     of support for women in leadership positions. Recognize
     that the more women employees who are in decision-making
     positions, the more there will be a climate that
     encourages women to seek election.

-    When child care or elder care is necessary in order for
     aboard member to attend meetings or training events,
     cover expenses.

Elected Group: Address Existing Barriers
Anxiety surrounds running for and holding office. Elections
can be gruelling political contests, and the information
members have on which to base their choice in large
co-operatives is thin. Elections tend to favour incumbents.
Once a board member is elected, there can be a negative change
in the way people treat her or him. A "we/they" division often
develops between board and membership. 

-    Improve the democratic climate of the organization
     through meaningful consultation processes which allow all
     members to bring their views to the board and membership
     for consideration.

-    Institute regular reviews (interviews with members and
     elected officials, hearings, avenues for anonymous
 "   registration of concern) to continually monitor and
     evaluate the organization's political climate in light of
     the following questions:

     *    Do the actions of the board and staff, and do member
          orientation programs, work to eliminate division
          between the board and members?

     *    Does the board, and do committees reflect the
          constituency the board hopes to serve? Does the
          organization define its constituency as one that
          reflects the diversity of the Canadian population?

Negative climate
Co-operative leaders need to ask whether their board and
delegate body create a climate that turns away women or
members of other under-represented groups. Signs of a negative
climate experienced by women in this study include: exclusion
of women from more prestigious committees or offices on the
board; perception among board members that the recording role
is appropriately filled by a woman; resistance to gender
neutral language; the assumption that the lone woman at the
table represents "all women." 

-    Establish a clear policy to deal with instances of sexual
     harassment in the democratic structure. Communicate the
     policy clearly to all elected officials and staff. 

-    Incorporate discussion of climate issues and material
     about differential treatment of women into board training
     programs. Include discussion of the importance to the
     board of people with varied backgrounds and leadership

-    Adopt a communications policy which includes guidelines
     on the use of inclusive language and non-sexist

-    Institute regular reviews (interviews with members and
     elected officials, hearings, avenues for anonymous
     registration of concern) to continually monitor and
     evaluate the climate for elected officials in light of
     the following questions:

     *    Are women, by design, tradition, or perception of
          their level of capability, excluded from certain
          offices on the board? Are they expected to fill
          gender-stereotyped roles on the board?

     *    Do women on the board need to work harder to
          establish their credibility than men do?

Weight of Responsibility
The stresses of elected office include divisive issues, legal
responsibility, unclear roles, physical fatigue and time
pressure. Co-operatives can help both women and men who are
elected officials meet responsibilities to their families and
communities with policies that make commitment to the
co-operative possible.

For women, the stress of an elected position can be compounded
by the loneliness of being the only woman or one of few women
in that position, and by the sense of being marked as
different because they sound different, look different and
dress differently from their male counterparts. To be seen as
different is to be more closely watched. Some research
participants were keenly aware of having to prove their
credibility to an extent that was not required of their male

-    Conduct exit interviews with female board members to
     learn of barriers they encountered or supports that were
     particularly helpful to them.

-    Ensure elected roles are characterized by reasonable work
     loads and flexibility, such that people who have family
     responsibilities and people who work in jobs with low
     flexibility can participate.

Employee Group: Building on Positive Experiences
Attitudes of co-workers and management affect both the daily
experience and the long-term success of female employees. A
climate that accepts women in decision making positions comes
about only with commitment from senior management. Research
participants gave examples of how acceptance, encouragement, a
sense of belonging, and flexibility in hours create a

-  Senior management must demonstrate a clear and articulate
   commitment to addressing barriers to all under-represented
   groups through practice and policy.

-  Allow flexibility in determining hours of work.

Encouragement and Recognition
Research participants recognized the role that supportive
managers and supervisors played, either through direct
encouragement or through seeing their potential and giving
them the opportunity to take on challenges and show

Encouragement and recognition is a responsibility of
management and supervisory staff, who should: 

-  Demonstrate confidence in women employees; assist employees
   to identify opportunities to take on new challenges and
   expand the scope of their positions; and,

-  Support employees in meeting these new challenges with
   appropriate training, release time, teamwork and resources.

Models and Mentors
It is important for women to see other women in senior roles
from an early stage in their careers. Mentorship often occurs
informally. A formal mentorship program creates opportunities
for a greater number of female employees to take advantage of
mentor relationships.

Organisations should facilitate mentor relationships in one or
more of the following ways: 

-    Establish, or provide access to, training which helps
     employees to choose mentors and to be effective mentors;

-    Establish panels of senior employees with whom other
     employees can meet and from whom they cn learn as a

-    Match new women employees with senior women employees in
     mentor pairs. 

Clear promotion procedures should be coupled with enough
flexibility that employees with initiative have room to expand
their jobs. A visible path to promotion lowers the chance that
informal mechanisms that disadvantage some groups will
continue to operate. Flexibility is important, since some jobs
evolve during a person's tenure as the organization grows,
affording the incumbent the opportunity to grow with the job.

-    Ensure open recruitment channels for women to pursue
     non-traditional jobs. Establish appropriate guidelines
     for advertising jobs and conducting interviews.

-    Establish training across functional areas to
     de-segregate primarily male and primarily female career

Research participants emphasized that employees need
information about opportunity and eligibility for training.
People cannot self-identify for development programs if they
are not aware of the possibilities. Opportunities for
cross-training on the job in a variety of work areas, with
release time to take advantage of such training, have been
crucial for some research participants. Decisions about
training should not be in the hands of supervisors alone.

-  Publicize training possibilities to all staff so they can
   self-identify for opportunities.

-  Go beyond granting the opportunity to self-identify for
   training. Encouragement is important.

-  Establish training opportunities for part-time staff.

-  Facilitate access to training events outside the
   organization, such as `Women in Management' seminars, where
   women can share concerns and approaches with other women.

Existing Barriers - Negative Climate
One woman noted that, especially in her field, which is a
non-traditional area for women, a woman has to be especially
tenacious in establishing her credibility. 

By virtue of being part of what is still a relatively new
phenomenon, a woman in senior & management is inevitably visible
in a way her male peers are not. 

Some women feel strong resistance when they raise questions
about sexism, sexual harassment, and gender neutral language.
This resistance pressures them to curb the extent to which
they speak out. Others find their work styles do not fit with
hierarchical, bureaucratic structures and adversarial
approaches to labour relations.

-    Establish a clear policy to deal with instances of sexual
     harassment. Communicate the policy clearly to all elected
     officials and staff. 

-    Institute regular reviews (interviews with employees,
     hearings, avenues for anonymous registration of concern)
     to continually monitor and evaluate the organizational
     climate in light of the following questions:

-    Do employee groups at all levels reflect the constituency
     the organization hopes to serve? Does the organization
     define its constituency as one that reflects the
     diversity among the Canadian population? Is it normal,
     not exceptional, to see women in leadership positions?

-    Are provisions such as flexible hours and cross-training
     available  consistently throughout the organization, or
     only in areas where supervisors support change?

Unclear career paths
Since experience across a variety of work areas is
increasingly seen as a prerequisite for promotion, opportunity
to train across functional areas is crucial. At the same time,
inherited assumptions about the set of skills required for
promotion to a particular position should be examined. When
criteria are re-thought to ensure that the appropriate set of
skills, properly weighted, are the basis for assessment, the
result may be an expanded or different pool of candidates for

-    Monitor differences in wages between areas where women
     achieve management positions and areas where they do not,
     to determine if management positions held by women are
     less valued.

-    Assess prerequisites for promotion to specific positions
     to determine areas where the organization is limiting
     itself to a male-only pool of candidates for promotion.

Juggling Work and Home
The increased stress and work load that accompany promotion
lead to a two-dimensional struggle for balance. One challenge
is to juggle the commitments within the job; the other is to
balance the job with life outside the office. 

Given heavy work loads and the still-strong societal pattern
that leaves women bearing the greater share of domestic work
and child and elder care, senior positions can become
unmanageable for some. As responsibilities in the home come to
be shared more equally, policies which accommodate workers'
multiple responsibilities will aid both women and men.

At the same time, such policies can increase the likelihood
that men will take on a larger share of the domestic load.

-    Audit the organization's effect on health, family and

-    Are work loads such that all employees can achieve a
     reasonable balance between work, personal life, and
     responsibilities to family and community?

The Role of Larger Co-operatives
It would be naive to assume that change across the
co-operative system will occur without leadership from the
system's largest and most influential organizations. Larger
organizations, particularly second and third tier
co-operatives, have the opportunity to encourage and support
meaningful, sustainable equity initiatives. 

In order to encourage co-operatives that may be unwilling or
unable to undertake equity initiatives in isolation, second
and third tier co-operatives should show leadership in
initiating efforts and in encouraging and supporting efforts
made by co-operatives to address equity for under-represented
groups in management, staff and democratic bodies. Examples
are: provide staff and/or speakers; sponsor workshops; train
workshop facilitators; ensure that issues related to equity
for under-represented groups appear on agendas at conferences
where co-operative representatives meet.

Concluding Remarks
This report presents recommendations based on primary research
with a group of case studies in various regions of Canada.
With the exception of Co-op Atlantic, the cases represent
primarily English-speaking Canada. Canadian co-operatives are
now in a position to benefit from a synthesis of their own
research with guidelines developed by various human rights
bodies, and research by large employers, including
universities across Canada.3

1.   A complete copy of this study is available from the
     Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, University of
     Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada S7N 5B8,
     under the title "Research for Action: Women in
     Co-operatives" by Leona Theis and Lou Hammond Ketilson.

2.   CCA is the national association of English-speaking co-
     operative organizations in Canada. CCA members include
     regional and provincial, co-operative and credit unions.
     members include organizations in agriculture and
     fisheries, consumer and supply, financial, and service
     sectors. The national organization runs programs and
     activities in the following areas: education; government
     affairs; research and policy formation; co-operative
     formation; and, information distribution.

3.   See, for example, "Reinventing  Our Legacy", Saskatoon:
     University of Saskatchewan, 1993.

*    Dr. Ketilson, is an Associate Professor of Management in
     the College of Commerce, a faculty member for Centre for
     the Study of Co-operatives, both at the University of
     Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. The Centre
     for the Study of Co-operatives is a research unit devoted
     to publishing on issues affecting co- operatives across