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The Proof is in the Process
Why some cooperatives promote gender equality and others don't
In brief: The processes that worker cooperatives use to make decisions determines whether they promote or stifle gender equality, according to one California research. Those that build participatory bureaucracy do best.
The background: In a post earlier this year on the University of Minnesota’s The Gender Policy Report, Cal Poly professor Joan Meyers lays out her recent research on the decision-making structures in worker cooperatives. Here’s what she found:
The co-op pandemic advantage: The pandemic disproportionately impacted women— particularly women of color—in the labor market. Women, over-represented in the roles of essential workers, had a higher exposure to COVID and more long-term consequences. However, worker co-ops—companies owned and managed by their workers—were able to avoid negative financial and physical outcomes for their women workers.
The co-op difference: Typically, women earn less and have less power in work settings compared to their male counterparts. In co-ops, employees have an equal say in the organization’s goals, the allocation of resources, and even some of the operations. Currently, the roughly 1000 worker co-ops in the U.S. are more diverse and have more gender parity.
What makes some cooperatives more egalitarian? Prof. Meyers coined the term participatory bureaucracy to describe when decisions concerning employment, scheduling, wages, and policies are subject to a collective decision through a membership-wide vote. This approach to allowing more accountability has steered worker co-ops towards more egalitarian balances without hierarchy. Participatory bureaucracy is most likely to succeed when the co-op’s worker identity is embraced, especially employees’ varied interests and conflicts. For instance, one co-op understood its employees as having a role at the company and as members of families and communities; therefore, providing childcare options was important.
What’s next: The WORK (Worker Ownership, Readiness and Knowledge Act) Act of 2023 aims to improve employee ownership and help drive change in worker co-ops. In order for companies to tap into their gender egalitarian prospects, many have to restructure their culture and organizations.
Image credit: An AI image from the prompt “gender equality in a worker cooperative”