WHM | 5 Ways that Women Lead and Succeed in Cooperatives – Cooperatives for a Better World

From Cooperatives for a Better World, learn about 5 ways that women are engaging in cooperatives, and succeeding in their leadership.

Since the very first modern-day cooperative business was established in Europe in 1844, women and men were given equal opportunity to hold membership in the co-op, vote for its leadership, and serve on its board of directors (Cooperative Heritage Trust 2017). This occurred years before women were given the right to vote in the US or UK. From the very beginning, co-ops have been leaders in promoting gender equality and giving women the ability to establish better livelihoods for themselves. The democratic, self-help principles upon which all cooperatives operate provide women the capability to have an equal say in decisions as men as well as an equal ability to take on leadership roles in these organizations. Here are five ways that women are paving the way to lead and succeed in cooperatives.

1 – Women Take a Stand in Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Companies

In 2014, women held 16% of seats on the boards of directors of the S&P 1500 (United States Government Accountability Office 2015). When we take a look at the insurance industry specifically, the industry average was 18% in 2015 (ICMIF 2016). In comparison, women in cooperative and mutual insurance companies* held 21% of seats on boards of directors, which surpasses both the representation of women on boards of the S&P 1500 and the industry average. Better yet, 48% of co-op and mutual insurance company members had three or more women on their boards in 2015, which greatly outperformed the industry average of just 17% (ICMIF).

2 – Women Lead the Way in Savings and Credit Cooperatives

The Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (COPAC) reports that proportionally more women join savings and credit cooperative organizations around the world, which increases their access to financial resources and opportunities (COPAC 2015). On top of becoming members of financial cooperatives, women hold 65% of seats on their boards of directors in Tanzania (COPAC).

3 – Women Are a Driving Force in Consumer Cooperatives

In the consumer cooperative sector, women are taking ownership of their shopping experience and becoming leaders of these organizations. In Japan, women make up 95% of consumer co-op membership and are in key governance positions within these co-ops (COPAC 2015).

4 – Women Own their Workplaces in Worker Cooperatives

Women are stepping up to the plate to lead worker cooperatives around the globe.  In Spain, 40% of female members of worker co-ops hold leadership positions (COPAC). As a global comparison, women hold only 24% of senior business roles in corporate firms; and 33% of firms do not have any women in senior management positions whatsoever (Medland 2016).

5 – Women Achieve Better Livelihoods through Cooperatives

Here in the U.S. the number of women leading Fortune 500 companies reached 5% in 2014 and 2015 (Swanson 2015) before decreasing to 4% in 2016 (Zarya 2016). Conversely, women are finding stable employment and increased quality of life through cooperatives. 2,000 people have joined Cooperative Home Care Associates, a worker-owned co-op of in-home health care providers in Bronx, NY. Over 90% of these worker-owners are women of color.  Latina immigrants are realizing the possibility of business ownership and sustainable livelihoods through Prospera, a female worker co-op incubator in the San Francisco Bay, CA area. The worker-owners of Prospera’s co-ops have tripled their income since becoming members (Sansores 2016). Women seize opportunity in cooperative businesses like these, to join together to meet their common needs. Women are leading these organizations and truly coming together to meet their common needs.

The women and men in cooperatives are making great strides for gender equality, and progress continues to be made daily. On this International Women’s Day, we celebrate the women who are paving the way in cooperative businesses – taking ownership of the businesses that shape their lives and leading the evolving business world.

* These figures come from the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation (ICMIF), which is the apex organization that represents cooperative and mutual insurance organizations around the world.


Cooperative Heritage Trust. (2017). The Rochdale Principles. Retrieved March 07, 2017, from http://www.rochdalepioneersmuseum.coop/about-us/the-rochdale-principles/

COPAC Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives. (2015). Cooperatives, Women, & Gender Equality. Retrieved March 7, 2017, from http://www.copac.coop/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/COPAC_PolicyBrief_CoopsWomen.pdf

CORPORATE BOARDS: Strategies to Address Representation of Women Include Federal Disclosure Requirements. (December 2015). Report to the Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Capital Markets and Government Sponsored Enterprises, Committee on Financial Services, House of Representatives. Retrieved March 7, 2017, from http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/674008.pdf

ICMIF. (September 2016). ICMIF Members’ Governance 2016. Retrieved March 7, 2017, from https://www.icmif.org/icmif-members-governance-2016

Medland, D. (2017, March 7). Today’s Gender Reality In Statistics, Or Making Leadership Attractive To Women. Retrieved March 7, 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/dinamedland/2016/03/07/todays-gender-reality-in-statistics-or-making-leadership-attractive-to-women/#169c235f6883

Sansores, M. (2016). Prospera 2015 Annual Report. Retrieved March 7, 2017, from http://prosperacoops.org/sites/default/files/prospera_2015_annual_report_1.pdf

Swanson, A. (2015, June 4). The number of Fortune 500 companies led by women is at an all-time high: 5 percent. Retrieved March 7, 2017, fromhttps://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/04/the-number-of-fortune-500-companies-led-by-women-is-at-an-all-time-high-5-percent/?utm_term=.4e135c05d745

Zarya, V. (2016, June 6). The Percentage of Female CEOs in the Fortune 500 Drops to 4%. Retrieved March 7, 2017, from http://fortune.com/2016/06/06/women-ceos-fortune-500-2016/