Cooperatives—especially worker-owned co-ops—are uniquely positioned to redress gender inequality in the United States, NCBA CLUSA president and CEO Judy Ziewacz said last week during a plenary panel called “Women’s Growing Leadership in the Economy” at the 2016 International Summit of Cooperatives.
“When people ask, ‘How do we diversify?’ my answer is usually, ‘Make it somebody’s job. Be intentional about it. Cultivate leadership.’ I think the advancement of women is best served in our democratic institutions, our governments and our cooperatives,” Ziewacz said.
However, “empowerment doesn’t only occur in the boardroom,” Ziewacz continued. Citing the emerging home care co-op industry in the U.S., she said worker-ownership is fast becoming a “building block for financial empowerment” that “spills over into other sectors of the economy.”
While key to keeping seniors and the disabled out of nursing homes and hospitals, home care providers working at for-profit agencies are some of the lowest paid and most exploited workers in the U.S.
When caregivers form their own cooperatives, however, “women become empowered, they own and control their own businesses, they advocate for better working conditions and wages and are more likely to participate in civic engagement,” Ziewacz said.
Bronx, NY-based Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA), the nation’s largest worker co-op, is a perfect example. Its 2,300 caregivers enjoy competitive wages, regular hours and family health care insurance. Meanwhile, CHCA benefits from just a 15 percent caregiver turnover rate—the industry average is more than 60 percent.
Within both worker-owned cooperatives and traditional businesses, there’s plenty of evidence that workplaces benefit from empowered women. During her opening remarks, panelist Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s Minister of International Development and La Francophonie, said recent research by Goldman Sachs demonstrates that a company’s profitability and return on investment markedly increase when women are well represented on senior leadership teams and boards of directors.
At the same time, Bibeau added, given the current rate of progress, men and women are not expected to achieve true gender equity for another 117 years. “What we need to change this trajectory are strong leaders who see the importance of including women,” she said.
Panelist Anne-Marie Hubert, Managing Partner at Ernst & Young in Canada, agreed. “It’s not a question of women’s ability; it’s a question of society. It takes leaders to set strong examples,” she said, citing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. When asked last year why forming Canada’s first gender-equal cabinet (one of only four in the world) was important to him, he responded, “Because it’s 2015.”
Besides, investing in women often yields a greater socio-economic return, said panelist Fatimah Mohamed Arshad, a member of the Malaysian National Cooperative Movement’s Board of Directors.
“Cooperatives, in part because they invest in women, are drivers of economic change,” Arshad said. Her organization, the apex body of Malaysian cooperatives, represent 12,000 co-ops and more than 7.5 million cooperators.
Ziewacz agreed, adding that co-ops are uniquely poised to train and educate women “so that when we create opportunities, women are ready and able to step up and serve.”
“I’m optimistic,” Ziewacz continued. “I think there are a lot of strong women leaders in our cooperative sectors and a lot of motivation to continue to cultivate that leadership.”
Another point of encouragement? Issues traditionally viewed as “women’s issues” are now becoming mainstream, Ziewacz said. “Historically, so-called women’s issues have not dominated, but if you look at healthcare, for example, the industry is beginning to realize that a big part of healthcare includes access to healthy foods, so we see politicians now addressing food deserts.”