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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Gender Equality in Worker Cooperatives

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April 7, 2011
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By Genna R. Miller, Economics Department, Duke University

As an economist who specializes in both non-capitalist firms and women's economic status, I have long been interested in understanding the degree of gender equality in worker cooperatives in the United States. Many theories concerning worker cooperatives and other less-hierarchical firms suggest that the egalitarian nature of such organizations should naturally lead to more equality, whether it be with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or other social categories. Based on interviews and a mail survey that I conducted amongst worker cooperatives in the United States in 2001, I find that women fare better in co-ops than in the mainstream capitalist labor force in terms of occupational attainment, hourly wage rates, and achievement of leadership roles. However, co-ops and traditional businesses cannot easily be compared along the same measurements. The differences in the ways that co-ops and capitalist businesses are structured and operated results in differences in the ways in which gender relations play out amongst the two types of firms. In particular, the number of hours worked by members seems especially meaningful in constructing gender differences in annual incomes within the co-op sector.

Several previous studies have compared women's status in capitalist firms with women's status in worker cooperatives in the U.K., Canada, the Israeli Kibbutz system, and the Spanish Mondragón community and have identified ways in which women in co-ops fare better than women in traditional firms. These studies have also pointed to challenges that women face specifically within co-ops. In some of the cooperatives in these studies, women are crowded into less skilled jobs, receive lower pay, and have fewer leadership opportunities than men.

For example, in a study of North American worker cooperatives, Julia Smith (2003), a researcher at the University of Victoria's BC Institute for Co-operative Studies (now the Centre for Co-operative and Community-Based Economy), explains:

... men [are] the majority in skilled labor, management, and director positions. Women who do sit on boards of directors or hold management positions admit that they feel alone, outnumbered, and are often afraid to speak up or fully realize their leadership roles. [...] The sexual division of labor (women as unskilled laborers and men as skilled laborers) is another challenge worker co-operatives face. This issue has a lot to do with larger societal structures of education, training, and taking time off to raise a family. [...] Ultimately, the gender barriers in worker co-operatives reflect the larger societal contexts in which they exist and, in many cases, worker co-ops have attempted to overcome gender barriers more actively than have many other businesses and organizations (Smith 2003).

Likewise, in several of my interviews with members of worker cooperatives in the United States, members have repeatedly referred to the cooperative community as a microcosm of the general labor force. Members suggested that if gender inequalities persist in the larger, capitalist economy, the co-op community, as a microcosm, is likely to reflect this bias. However, as J. Smith makes clear in the above quote, the co-op movement has been active in addressing many of these issues of gender inequality, with preventive structures implemented like workshops and educational programs on gender-based discrimination.

Yeni Solis and Troy Vadakan at Arzimendi Panaderia and Pizzeria in San Francisco. 11 of the cooperative's 15 founders are women. Photo by Myleen Hollero.

In order to more fully understand the complexities of how gender relations play out in US worker co-ops, I conducted a small-scale, pilot survey of US worker cooperatives during the summer of 2001. Four hundred twenty-four worker-members in forty-two co-ops were randomly sampled. Surveys were distributed to both the cooperatives themselves and a sample of their workers. The co-op-level surveys had a response rate of 67%. The surveys that asked for information and opinions from the workers themselves yielded a response rate of 32.3%, with 137 workers responding. This response rate is fairly low, indicating that there may be a problem of non-response bias. Thus, this survey serves only as a preliminary analysis of gender equality in cooperatives, and acts as a template for further research. In addition to the mail survey, I conducted first-hand interviews with worker co-op members on the phone and over e-mail. Although the data that the co-op community has generously shared with me is still in its preliminary stages, a story emerges about women's and men's status in cooperatives.

What, then, is the status of gender equality in worker cooperatives in the United States? Sylvia Walby (1990) and other feminist theorists suggest that oppression towards women is manifested within both US culture and in the material/economic realm. Many of the social and cultural aspects of gender inequality can be observed within the cooperative community. For example, in a personal phone conversation with a worker cooperative member in 2009, this co-op member explained that many women in her cooperative had experienced sexism within the co-op, specifically noting that, "The women workers wanted the male workers to know that they did not want their bodies to be objects. - They did not want to feel demeaned or not valued" (Personal phone conversation with worker cooperative member, November 23, 2009).

Fortunately, many cooperatives are astutely aware of this type of sexism as reflected in greater society, thus motivating the co-op community to take preventive action. Recently, anti-oppression and harassment prevention workshops have become more prevalent within the co-op community and these often touch on issues of gender inequality. For example, in their 2010 annual conference, the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives hosted a workshop titled, "Privilege, Oppression and Workplace Democracy," which addressed issues of power related to race, ethnicity, gender, and other social categories. The US Federation of Worker Cooperatives is a national, grassroots membership organization providing technical assistance and resources to worker cooperatives and other democratic workplaces.

Next, it is important to analyze the material/economic consequences of gender (in)equality, focusing specifically on income levels. Amongst mainstream businesses in 2001, the median hourly wage for men was $11.36 and for women it was $9.57, yielding a ratio of women's to men's hourly wages of 84.3. That is, for each dollar earned by men, women earn about 84 cents. (Figures taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) (2002)). BLS data also shows that for full-time workers, women's median yearly income was $26,572 and men's was $34,944, giving a wage ratio of 0.76 (BLS 2002). In contrast, worker co-operatives strive to keep wage differentials low between the highest and lowest paid workers in their business, often paying equal hourly wages to all workers. This suggests that we would find greater income-related gender equality within the co-op community. My survey data confirms this, as I find that women and men earn comparable hourly wages of approximately $17 per hour. However, when yearly salaries are compared, women are found to earn significantly less than men do in co-ops. Women's median yearly salary was $26,572 in 2001 while men's was about $40,000, yielding a ratio of women's to men's salaries of 0.76. When dividends and surplus from profits are included in total income, the median total income for women was $32,870, while men's was $43,000, giving the same income ratio of 0.76. Surprisingly, this is the same gender wage ratio that is experienced within the general (capitalist) labor force. However, because women's and men's hourly wages in co-ops is equal, this wage gap is due to differences in the number of co-op hours that women and men work. My preliminary survey shows that while men work an average of 40 hours per week in the co-op, women average 33 hours. Thus, in order to understand workplace income equality, the causes of women's fewer hours and men's greater hours worked in co-ops need to be explored.

Occupational segregation, in which women and men work in different industries and occupations, is often cited as a source of gender inequality in traditional, capitalist firms. In contrast, worker cooperatives emphasize policies of job rotation and cross-training. For example, one co-op member explains that, "Our co-op offers great opportunity to cross-train and change departments." (Written response from worker cooperative member in 2001 preliminary survey of U.S. worker cooperatives). This suggests that occupational segregation based on gender is less severe in co-ops. My 2001 study confirms this, and furthermore shows that women are more often in management positions in the co-op economy. Figure 1 shows the proportion of women and men in co-ops in the five broadest occupational categories presented in the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It can be seen that while women are mainly in management and professional positions (34%) and sales and office jobs (32%), most men are in production jobs (36%) followed by management and professional positions (25%). Additionally, women are over-represented in service jobs while men are over-represented in natural resources and construction jobs.

Figure 1.


Women's and Men's Occupations in U.S. Worker Cooperatives



The data shows that women in cooperatives appear to hold more prestigious, white collar jobs relative to men's working-class, blue collar jobs. This is quite significant as it represents a sharp break from the mainstream trend.

We can also look more closely at this issue by calculating the occupational segregation index. This index tells us the percentage of women (or men) that would need to change jobs in order for the occupational distribution of the two groups to be the same. The index is indeed lower in cooperatives than that for the general labor force for the year 2001. Based on the broadest occupational categories presented in the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the occupational segregation index for the cooperatives is 27.5 (based on the author's survey data). In contrast, the occupational segregation index for the general labor force is higher, at 31.5. This calculation is based on data for the entire US labor force obtained from the Current Population Survey for 2001 (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2001). The author's calculation here yields an index for 2001 that is similar to that found by other researchers in the field. For example, Gabriel and Schmitz (2007) obtain an index of 31.0 while Hoffman and Averett (2005) calculate an index of 32.1 using broad occupational categories. Studies that disaggregate occupations into finer and more detailed job categories and descriptions find much higher levels of segregation for this time period, closer to 50.0 (Jacobs 2003) for the entire US labor force. Thus, in total, it is clear that less occupational segregation by gender occurs in co-ops than in traditional capitalist businesses.

Within the cooperative movement, women have also been able to crack the "glass ceiling" that women in traditional, capitalist firms often encounter, in terms of being prevented from rising to high leadership and managerial levels. Instead, co-ops emphasis a less hierarchical work environment that encourages more opportunities for all workers, including women, to obtain leadership positions - thus allowing women in co-ops to crack the "glass ceiling." The data collected from the 2001 survey indicates that 49% of leadership roles in co-ops were held by women, 46% were held by men, and 5% of the roles were reported to have multiple officers with both men and women filling the positions. Thus, in my survey sample, women actually hold a higher percentage of leadership roles than do men. However, a close examination of the survey data reveals that most of the leadership roles held by women are in lower management positions such as treasurer and secretary. Women held 55% of the treasurer positions and 65% of the secretary positions. The higher positions of both CEO and president were held mainly by men, with 60% of the CEO positions and 58% of president positions held by men. Managerial roles were held by an equal percentage of women and men. At the same time, though, scholars point out that women seem to hold the majority of leadership positions within support organizations that assist worker cooperatives (Phone interview with Mary Hoyer of the Cooperative Fund of New England and the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy). As just one example, Melissa Hoover serves as the Executive Director of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives.

Overall, women in cooperatives fare better than women in capitalist firms in terms of occupational attainment, hourly wages, and achievement of leadership positions. Still, comparisons of gender relations between cooperative and capitalist businesses is complex. Theorists often suggest that gender relations in mainstream businesses are structured around the hierarchical, and unequal, nature of such firms. Since co-ops rely on a more egalitarian structure, the indicators of gender inequality as seen in traditional firms may be less relevant. The study conducted here stipulates that within co-ops, the number of hours worked by women and men may be an important aspect around which gender relations are constructed. This suggests the need to further analyze women's and men's time allocation within the cooperative movement and to examine further the ways in which gender relations play out in co-ops. I hope to contact more worker cooperatives to learn about their experiences and ideas, so that we can work together to develop some "best practices" regarding how to continue to support gender equality within the worker cooperative community.

Permanent link to this article:



Bureau of Labor Statistics. (BLS)

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (BLS) 2001. "Household Data, Annual Averages: Employed Persons by Occupation, Sex, and Age." (Date of retrieval: 21 May 2009).

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (BLS) 2002. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (BLS) "Highlights of Women's Earnings in 2001." Report 960. (Date of retrieval: 22 Feb. 2011).

Gabriel, P. and S. Schmitz. 2007. Gender Differences in Occupational Distribution among Workers. Monthly Labor Review. Bureau of Labor Statistics. June: 19-24.

Hoffman, S. and S. Averett. 2005. Women and the Economy. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Jacobs, J. 2003. Detours on the Road to Equality: Women, Work and Higher Education. Contexts. 2(1): 32-41.

Oerton, S. 1994. Exploring Women Workers - Motives for Employment in Cooperative and Collective Organizations. Journal of Gender Studies. 3: 289-297.

Smith, J. 2003. Worker Co-operatives. BC Institute for Co-operative Studies, University of Victoria, Date of retrieval: 7 May, 2009, at

Walby, S. 1990. Theorizing Patriarchy. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

About the author

Genna R. Miller has been researching issues of gender equality in worker cooperatives in Canada and the United States since 1998. She is currently a Visiting Instructor in the Economics Department and the Women's Studies Program at Duke University. Genna is also a member of the Union for Radical Political Economists (URPE) and has recently published two articles in scholarly journals concerning women's status in worker cooperatives in the United States. Genna would like to continue her work in understanding gender equality in U.S. co-ops by hearing from members of the co-op community about their experiences and ideas. If you would like to contact Genna, she can be reached at or (919) 402-9682.



When citing this article, please use the following format:

Genna R. Miller (2011). Gender Equality in U.S. Worker Cooperatives.

Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume 2,Issue 7.


Photo courtesy of Genna Miller.

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