Co-operative and mutual enterprises regard themselves as ethical businesses. As member organisations, we literally exist to serve our customers and we wanted to know how we were doing on gender equality.
Co-operatives have a long history of empowering women. Women had an equal vote in co-operative leadership decades before they could vote for parliament. In 1846, Eliza Brierley became the first female member of a co-operative.
But the latest stats show that we too must try harder.
Women make up 46 per cent of the Australian workforce, but in every industry and sector, women are under-represented in leadership positions. This is true for the corporate sector as well as the co-operative and mutual sector.
As well as being under-represented in the top jobs, women are over-represented in lower paid occupations and lower grades of all industries. Vertical and horizontal segregation push women into lower paid occupations. These patterns arise from more than just choices at the individual level; they are the result of structural factors and social norms.
Paradoxically, the democratic structure of co-operatives adds complexity to the structural factors affecting women’s equal participation.
Women, as much as men must be willing to put themselves forward to stand in popular elections for board seats. So, we see some echoes of the structural inequalities experienced in mainstream political parties and the underrepresentation of women in politics.
Women continue to do the majority of unpaid care work, which drives women into flexible, casual or part-time work, restricting the roles available to them and curtailing their opportunities for advancement. This in turn, deprives organisations of talented staff and decreases diversity at the executive and board levels.
Of the co-operative and mutual enterprises, only 5 out of the top 100 have women as CEOs.
For the co-operative and mutuals sector, there is more than just a business case for inclusion and equality. Co-operative and mutual enterprises are controlled by members and are guided by values and principles that promote inclusion and democratic control.
We must start by fixing ourselves. It is time to focus on the true ‘merit’ of the people within our organisations.
Some businesses think that they have to look outside the organisation to find new leaders.
But often talent lies deep within your organisation and if you put the right processes in place to find and promote quality people, you will often be taking the first step to empowering your organisation to increase its revenues and surpluses.
Further, it is more often than not, women who in the past have been overlooked for senior management and even Board elections, when they have clearly possessed the requisite skills to succeed.
Just because someone has been on parental leave or overlooked for a senior position before, doesn’t mean that they are not capable now.
It is time to redress this imbalance.
BCCM member, Western Australian grain giant Co-operative Bulk Handling Group (CBH), began taking action by running hugely popular leadership courses in regional Australia.
CBH started a grass roots leadership short course, which is a new regional leadership program designed specifically for those living and working in regional parts of Australia.
Members who are on the Growers Advisory Council are invited to take the short course. The goal is to build confidence in leadership capabilities and develop a deeper understanding of what makes an effective and engaging leader.
It is designed to bridge the gap for growers – someone who wants to develop leadership skills. As a result the most capable people rise to the top and are able to run for the member-elected board building the leadership capacity of our rural communities.
The course helps participants to analyse their management capabilities, teaches them about authentic and resilient leadership and understanding how to influence and develop toolkits to communicate with influence, as well as examining strategies on how to engage others in change. It is proving to be very popular and is now oversubscribed.
And, wouldn’t you know it, this gender-neutral course which focuses on developing ‘merit’, resulted in the first woman member to be voted onto the CBH Board.
Some people are unaware of the leadership qualities within them: often it is a lack of opportunity and, sometimes, confidence.
If all organisations took the approach CBH did and developed the talent within, diversity will be the result, women will rise and our organisations – co-ops, mutuals, listed, private and political – will prosper.