This week, to mark International Women’s Day 2019, the Co-operative Party Women’s Network hosted an event exploring how co-operatives have succeeded in empowering women to bring about sustainable change to their communities around the world.

Over the course of the evening, members heard from Dame Pauline Green and Susanne Westhausen of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) on the impact of co-operatives worldwide.

As the Co-operative Party works with the Labour Party to achieve its goal of doubling the size of the co-operative economy, it is also worth taking a moment to reflect on how co-operatives facilitate social change – especially with regards to gender equality.

Susanne Westhausen, director of a national co-operative development agency in Denmark, Kooperationen, who sits on the gender equality committee of the ICA indicated there was much to be hopeful of with regards to the work being carried out by the ICA and Cooperatives Europe.

Susanne’s presentation provided a timely reminder of the stark gender inequality across the world. A few points from her presentation included the fact that the proportion of women in national parliaments in 2017 stood at 23.4%, while 1/3 of senior and middle-management positions are held by women.

We know that one of the key reasons behind this inequality is due to the imbalance of unpaid work and domestic duties between men and women; with women, on average, undertaking three times as much unpaid domestic care work as men. The potential benefits of correcting this imbalance are huge: the European Commission estimates that achieving gender equality would facilitate an increase in GDP per capita by up to 9.6% between now and 2050.

So what is the relationship between co-operatives and gender equality?

While there is much focus on the fifth UN Sustainable Development Goal – achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls – this International Women’s Day, taken collectively, the goals very much speak to co-operative values. Co-operative solutions can and should be seen as initiatives that address some of the significant challenges faced in both the developed and developing world.

As Dame Pauline Green, former President of the ICA, pointed out, the co-operative movement is based on unity, cohesion and working together from the grassroots up in order to change communities for the better.

The democratic principle of co-operatives offers an opportunity for women to take an equal place beside men and very much contribute on an equal footing. After all, even at its inception the co-operative movement ensured men and women were equal participants – with women often taking a substantial role in co-operative societies within their communities.

In many middle and lower income countries, women’s co-operatives, such as women’s weavers’ co-operatives, have enabled women to take control of their lives and contribute to their communities. Recently, we’ve seen the creation of the first women’s craft brewery co-operative in Croatia. The UK needs to be following suit with the creation of co-operative initiatives that work for those within them.

One of the persistent issues in the gender equality argument currently is the gender pay gap. Co-operatives prove their worth yet again in addressing this issue. While work still needs to be done, co-operatives have illustrated that they do better at bridging the gap. In the UK alone, the difference in average hourly rate of pay between men and women is 14% across all UK employers compared to 8% amongst co-operatives.

Co-operative initiatives offer a great deal to both the economic viability and social cohesiveness of our country, providing solutions to a wealth of issues faced within the UK and beyond. So let’s learn from our European neighbours and look to how we double the size of the co-operative economy, facilitating sustainable and much-needed change.