The launch of the Co-operative Womens Challenge 2020 took place in Leeds on July 2nd. I went along to cover the launch for the magazine and while I had been looking forward to it, it was with heavy heart that I dragged myself into the venue and out of the cloudless blue sky and warmth of Leeds. Coming from Scotland and the dreadful weather we have endured recently, it felt like a penance to have to forego the chance to warm my vitamin D-deprived bones.

I joined the group in a window-less conference room but was immediately aware of the buzz of many animated voices. It had occurred to me that some people, at least, would find the lure of the sun too tempting and choose to stay away. I could not have been more wrong, as the room was full of women of all ages and sizes, some dressed up, others casual, but all warm and welcoming.

The welcome was given by Jenny Barnes who is the Director of the Co-operative Group Board. She explained the purpose of the conference and the challenge, is to address the under-representation of women in the movement. They will do this by:

  • Taking steps to ensure that democratic structures are more representative of their members
  • Looking at ways in which they can enhance the presence of women at senior management levels within their corporate structure and businesses
  • Fulfilling their commitment to the values and principles by taking the message outwards, and rediscovering the movement’s historic role in taking forward gender equality

The information that was provided beforehand states: “By virtue of being co-operative, the co-operative sector should set an example to the rest of society”. Interviews had been carried out, prior to the conference, with 16 women involved in the co-operative movement. The purpose of this was to: “Understand the role they play within the co-operative movement and any issues they perceive are still present today”. You can download the document at:

The keynote speech was given by Lynne Franks (SEED, Sustainable Enterprise and Empowerment Dynamics) who began her career in design and advertising but was drawn a couple of decades ago, to the plight of women nationally and internationally. Since then she has been involved in projects at home and abroad to address the issues of equality and diversity and particularly to encourage women’s voices in making change happen. Lynne was lively and enthusiastic. Her passion for the need for change in order to move towards social cohesion and cultural diversity was articulated forcefully.

Dr Ruth Sealy, (International Centre for Women Leaders, Cranfield University) followed. This was the presentation that gave you the facts and figures, the one that we know is necessary and we have to sit through. There was nothing crusty and boring about Ruth however. She communicated through her passion and obvious frustration, albeit through figures, that nothing much has changed in the last decade and is not likely to, unless action is taken. She argued that quotas are necessary if things are to change. Her research, logic and passion has finally persuaded me that they are necessary.

After a brief panel discussion, the conference broke up into groups for workshop sessions. There were nine workshops in total. I attended a session called ‘Caring or Careers’, which was not so much a workshop as employees of the Co-op telling us what the organisation is doing to encourage flexible working. It is clear that the organisation is working to develop good working practices. In responding to my question about encouraging men to take up the different options, it is clear that the will is there but the organisation has not been very successfull in making this happen. I was also interested in knowing what the Co-op is doing to tackle low pay; personally I think that if the organisation wants to set an example to the rest of society it could do this by making its pay structure flatter, benefiting lower paid workers. However I did not get the opportunity.

In the first session in the afternoon, Moira Lees, who is the Co-operative Group Secretary covered a little bit about how the group plans to move “….towards more equal and equitable structures, with particular reference to governance and senior management”. She was very open and answered the questions competently.

This was followed by another workshop session and I joined ‘Diversity, Equality and Women’. This was more interesting in that the workshop leader asked us to consider what was needed for us to achieve equality. A very robust discussion took place around the issue of low pay and its impact on women who often have caring roles as well as having to keep the family economically afloat. It was agreed that while it is important to look at what is happening near the top of the organisation, it is even more important that the Co-op sets an example at the bottom. A new appointment to the Board, Liz Moyle was asked to take back our recommendation that the Co-op should be the ‘gold standard’ for how it treats its lowest paid workers. I got my say at last!

For the last five minutes of the workshop, a representative of the African Women Support Project Foundation gave us a brief insight into the work of the group which helps immigrants, refugee and asylum seeing women. She exhorted us to be patient in dealing with people from different ethnic backgrounds, non-judgemental and to listen. A good way to finish the workshop. You can see more about this organisation at:

This was followed by a presentation by Stefania Macone who is the Chairperson of the ICA

Gender Equality Commission. This was an interesting presentation providing lots of facts and figures which bore out what we had heard earlier. Things are no longer changing fast enough, either in Britain or elsewhere. She too had positive things to say about quotas.

The final session of the day, closing remarks, was by Chris Herries, Director of the Co-operative Group Board. It is clear that there is a great deal of determination by the women on the board to make things happen!

I had a good day: some great presentations, opportunities to have your say, some interesting stalls to browse (now going to be buying knickers from, which helps women who have had a difficult time, to help themselves) and a good lunch.

I took two things away from the day: a commitment to quotas and a little bit of satisfaction that I have been able to pass onto a board member how I think that the Co-operative Board can: “……set an example to the rest of society”.


  1. I hope that the day, the contacts and the information helps with the co-operatives. Do you think that people, including the readers, understand the benefits of being a member of a co-operative? The more members, the more benefits – it has served John Lewis and The C-op very well and is an admirable, inspiring business model for ALL involved.

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