Women on boards

Having read the rather disappointing excuses proffered by ‘executives at the UK’s biggest firms’ in response to the Hampton-Alexander review currently being carried out for the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills concerning the low number of women yet appointed to the boards of FTSE companies, I chanced upon the following article from 1899 calling for women’s representation on the boards of organisations whose decisions directly affected them.

In  July 1899, Mrs Day presented a paper to the Annual Meeting of the Women’s Co-operative Guild: Women on Management Committees: A Few Reasons why Women should sit on Management Committees of Co-operative Societies.  The paper is available to download for free from Archive.org.

The Women’s Co-operative Guild is rather fabulous – established as The Women’s League for the Spread of Co-operation in 1883, before changing its name to the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1885. Set up to provide women with a voice within the co-operative movement, it provided a forum for working women to agitate for better working and living conditions, education, welfare and economic support. You can find out more at the National Co-operative Archive.

In 1899, Mrs Day presented 5 key reasons why women should be appointed to the men-only Co-Operative Society boards, the first of which was to point our how many other major public institutions already counted women on their governing bodies:

Women are considered to be qualified to sit on poor-law boards as guardians, to look after the supplies needed, both of food, clothing, shoes, housing, nursing, educating, in fact, everything referring to poor-law work, which involves the spending of many thousands of pounds of public money, and their judgment upon samples of goods is accepted, and their advice acted upon. The same rule applies to school boards. How many women now occupy seats throughout the country? Their judgment is sought not only upon the matters directly relating to education, but on the erection and furnishing of palatial school buildings. Women are considered not to understand plans and drawings of buildings ; still, they are making these things their study, and I have never yet read or heard of a woman either on poor-law or school boards shirking any part of her work; but always willing, and desirous to do their part of the work faithfully and well. If we, as women, can take our share in the work of these public bodies, can we not also do the same in the management of our societies? The duties are not more difficult, the responsibilities more great, nor the strain more severe. We do not desire to take the places of competent men on these management committees; but we do claim, as members of the same societies, with equal interests at stake, our right to share the duties of management, and bring to the work a calm and clear judgment on all matters brought before us, free from bias.

No one, I think, will dare to say, after what I have stated, we are not capable of carrying out our duties. Women must and will take their places on the boards of our co-operative societies in the future, much more so than in the past. If women are considered qualified to sit on the Central Board of the Co-operative Union, sex being no barrier to election, I think the day is not far distant when on the management committee of every co-operative society in the kingdom, whose rules admit to membership both sexes equally, at least one or two women should be found.

The requested change did not come about swiftly, but it did eventually take place – for further information, read Nicole Robertson’s paper ‘Women as organised consumers: the case of the co-operative movement’ (Economic History Society, 2008).

It still seems to be working.  Data collected for International Women’s Day 2016 finds that there are twice as many female directors of the UK’s largest retail co-operatives than there are of FTSE companies.

Co-operatives UK continues to champion the importance of inclusivity from the shopfloor to the boardroom.  It’s worth looking at the Co-operative Women’s Challenge in 2011, a campaign that seeks to ensure women are fairly represented at all levels within the co-operative movement. The challenge aims by 2020 to promote:

  1. Fair representation in the democratic structures of co-operatives
  2. More women in senior management roles and
  3. A wider campaign for gender equality across the economy and society.

When Mrs Day made her case in 1899, I wonder if she had any idea how long it would take for the change to take effect?

READING: 

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