Gender equality in the co-operative movement

Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea reflects on this year’s International Women’s Day

Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea, chair of the Gender Equality Committee of the International Cooperative Alliance

On International Women’s Day we talk to Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea, chair of the International Cooperative Alliance’s Gender Equality Committee, to find out more about the committee’s work and the role of women within the global co-operative movement.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a Covid-19 World.” How do co-operatives enable women to access leadership positions?

Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea: It is necessary to remember that co-operatives were the first organisations to give women the opportunity to be investors, to make them part of the production process, of the surpluses or profits of the companies and of access to credit. From the beginning, co-operatives have provided women with a position that has allowed them to have the possibility of accessing economic resources, property and means of production, but we must recognise that only in the last 20 years women have occupied leadership or visibility positions in many of the co-operative organisations.

This has been the result of work and a process of empowerment, generated from within each organisation, a product of education, of the acquisition of political, economic, legal and family rights, which we women have obtained. It is the one that today allows women to have an influential position in co-operative leadership. In our case, we have had two women presiding over the International Cooperative Alliance, and we have significant representation in its board of directors, as well as in some regional boards. We hope to see in this century that much-desired parity in the management bodies of co-operatives.

How has Covid-19 impacted the work of the ICA Gender Equality Committee that you chair?

Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea: Covid-19 has impacted the work of the committee because it has changed the dynamics of interaction and relationship, but it has also given us the opportunity to make use of virtual tools and technologies that allow us to continue to carry out our work continuously, and in addition, it has allowed us to reinforce communication and teamwork within networks. Through virtual meetings, we have been able to define the committee’s work plan and actively participate in events around the world that promote the visibility of women in the co-operative sector.

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In addition to your role as chair of the ICA Gender Equality Committee, you were the president of Coomeva, the largest co-operative in Colombia. How is the gender dimension reflected in your co-operative’s strategy?

Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea: I served as president of the Coomeva board of directors from 2010 to 2017. Although I am not in charge today, I continue to hold a high-level leadership position within the co-operative. However, in my experience as president of the council, I had the opportunity to implement the gender equality policy, the creation of the gender equality committee and the definition of economic resources for the execution of important actions, which raised awareness about the role of the woman within the entity. As part of this all the actions of women who, in one way or another, participate or belong to the co-operative were highlighted, from collaborators and women in management positions, to associates and their families. This experience has served as an example for many organisations in Colombia and in Latin America.

What is your advice for co-operatives that are just starting to work on promoting gender equality?

Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea: My advice is that an analysis should be carried out within the organisation to evaluate the way in which the co-operative is formed. Subsequently, they should determine how the co-operative members (men and women) are being reached via services, since talking about gender equality means serving all people, but today we need to enhance the role of women in organisations, and offer services tailored to members. It is also important to have a vision of what co-operatives can offer to the women who belong to them. Then, they should create working committees, where, based on different disciplines and diversity, gender equality strategies can be developed. Finally, empower women and enable them to show leadership through their representation in management and advisory positions, achieving equal participation for men and women.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in the co-operative movement? How did you overcome them and how did other women and co-operative members support you?

Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea: In the co-operative movement I have had important challenges such as the lack of awareness of gender equality and its importance in organisations. Convincing my colleagues why it is important for women to participate, lead and represent in co-operative administrative and management roles was crucial to achieving empowerment in organisations.

I managed to overcome these difficulties through education on gender equality matters, and by empowering myself as a woman within the organisation, as well as establishing strategies that allowed me to participate in different scenarios, I gained the support of other women to whom I explained what to talk about. Gender equality does not mean starting a revolution against men, but rather rescuing spaces to which we have the right to access. This has generated a significant change in the co-operative sector and in the organisations in which I have participated, as well as in the Colombian Association of Cooperatives – Ascoop, a leading entity in Colombia with 60 years of existence, where today I am the executive director.

The Gender Equality Committee will meet in Seoul in the run-up to the World Cooperative Congress. What will be on the agenda for the meeting?

Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea: The Congress has the premise of the co-operative identity and the celebration of the 125 years of the International Cooperative Alliance. We need to remember the women who participated in the ICA’s great definitions and decisions; It will be an essential task that in Seoul we talk about the meaning of co-operative identity for women, why we are closely linked to the co-operative movement and we think that co-operatives gave us the opportunity to exercise business and economic rights and responsibilities; there we will ask ourselves how co-operatives have empowered women and generated leadership for us.

This has built an identity not only for women, but also for the co-operative movement, since women represent 50% of the membership in co-operatives and the number of women leaders within these organisations is increasing. We still have a long way to go, but in this space we must think about the strategies for this task.

The theme of the ICA Congress is “Deepening our co-operative identity.” How can the fight against gender inequalities help to advance this agenda?

Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea: The theme of the ICA Congress gives us all the motivation to promote the participation of women as a co-operative agenda worldwide. To deepen our co-operative identity is to deepen the efforts that women and men have made throughout the history of the International Cooperative Alliance and that of co-operatives.

It is necessary to discover what are the strategies and methods that we must implement so that women can be leaders and achieve parity in the co-operative sector that we are just beginning to see, since we could say that only in the last 20 years women have been visible in the global co-operative movement. There is a long way to go for women to be able to achieve parity, and achieving that parity implies that co-operatives and the ICA contribute to the fight against gender inequalities that occur in our organisations and in our countries. That is why it is essential to deepen our co-operative identity to achieve equality in the leadership and empowerment of women and men, in a fight for what gender equality means.

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