Beyond pink-collar jobs: how the social economy can step up on gender equality

Women workers outnumber men in social economy organisations; leadership and pay gaps are also lower than in the wider economy. But a “considerable glass ceiling” persists. The OECD argues this needs to change.

The social and solidarity economy – including cooperatives, associations, mutual societies, foundations, social enterprises and other organisations – employs more women than men, and often has a narrower gender pay gap than the broader economy. In Spain, for instance, the gender gap in pay in these organisations is 8 percentage points smaller than in the private sector.

This is among the findings of ‘Beyond pink-collar jobs for women and the social economy’, a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published in March, which looked at data from a number of OECD countries plus South Africa and countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

The social economy could become a role model - Zarah Bruhn

It found that more than 60% of social and solidarity economy (SSE) workers are women, compared with less than 50% in the wider economy. 

Speakers at the OECD conference session two.jpgSpeakers at the OECD conference on the social economy on 21 March, pictured left to right: Jean-Louis Bancel, Zarah Bruhn, Ulrik Vestergaard Knudsen, Marlène Schiappa and Nitya Nangalia (credit: Victor Tonelli, OECD)

Women are also more likely to lead an organisation within the social economy than in other sectors. For example, in Turkey, the share of women with managerial roles in social enterprises is reported at 65%, more than triple the rate in the total labour force. And in Germany, more than half of social startups are led by women, according to Zarah Bruhn, a social entrepreneur and special advisor on social innovation at Germany’s Ministry of Education and Research, while fewer than 20% of startup founders more broadly are women. “That is a big opportunity we need to foster,” said Bruhn, who was speaking at an OECD conference on the social economy on 21 March. The social economy could “become a role model and have a leading position” within the wider economy, she added.


 Women in the social and solidarity economy: key figures

  • More than two in five leaders of SSE organisations are women 
  • Almost two in three workers are women
  • More than one in two volunteers are women
  • Around one in three social enterprises target women beneficiaries

OECD: Beyond pink-collar jobs for women and the social economy


Glass ceiling

But the report also found that work in the social economy is mostly in “pink-collar” jobs – “historically feminised” sectors or occupations such as childcare or social work that are often low-paid and undervalued, and that lack clear opportunities for career progression.

Social economy entities led by women often encounter difficulties in accessing finance, receiving significantly less funding than male-led businesses. “They experience a double (or sometimes even triple) bind due to their founders’/owners’ gender,” the report’s authors write. The report also indicates that women are typically directed towards traditionally female-dominated fields that are projected to have slower growth.

It happens to me, very often, to be the only woman sitting at the table - Marlene Schiappa

Leadership on social economy policy issues is also male-dominated, suggested Marlene Schiappa, France’s secretary of state for the social and solidarity economy and associations, also speaking at the OECD conference.

"I am sometimes sad to see that while so many women work in the SSE, there is a considerable glass ceiling,” she said. “It happens to me, very often, to be the only woman sitting at the table.” 

She added: “I don't think we can say that we are defending values like humanism and so on, and de facto excluding 52% of humanity.”



How can we overcome these challenges? “We must develop a holistic approach,” said Nitya Nangalia, co-founder of Women's Enterprise Support System (WESS) in India, which mentors women and aims to incubate and accelerate more women-run collective enterprises. “This includes getting women into ‘non-traditional’ work”, she said, such as engineering. 

Schiappa said there was “a lot of overlap between SSE issues, and issues linked to digital transformation… we shouldn’t ‘decorrelate’ the different issues.” 

Bringing support structures to women who typically miss out is also important. Ikea Social Entrepreneurship, which supports social entrepreneurs as well as seeking suppliers, partners with Rangsutra, an organisation which gathers artisans in small cooperatives in remote regions of India, and helps women with little or no education. “These women have a hard time getting access to quality jobs. Rangsutra… helps to empower and develop them into different types of leadership positions,” said Åsa Skogström Feldt, managing director of Ikea Social Entrepreneurship.

Government policies can help women in the social and solidarity economy, as well as in the wider economy. The government of the region of Navarre in Spain has a strategic plan for gender equality which includes programmes to support women in rural and urban areas to improve their professional skills, said Maria Carmen Maeztu Villafranca, the region’s minister for social rights. Bruhn highlighted some examples from Germany’s national strategy including summits, “role model campaigns”, and pushing for more visibility of social innovation, social entrepreneurship and the role of women.

A first step is to “mainstream” gender equality into SSE policy frameworks

Acknowledging women’s work and leadership in social and solidarity economy “can reinforce women’s empowerment more broadly”, according to the OECD report – a first step is to “mainstream” gender equality into SSE policy frameworks. 


How policy-makers can increase gender equality in the social and solidarity economy (SSE): OECD recommendations

  • Increase awareness of gender issues and women’s roles in the SSE 
  • Gather more evidence on gender in SSE in order to share lessons with the wider economy 
  • Reinforce the capacity of SSE organisations to support work-life balance and integration of women into the labour force more generally 
  • Improve job quality and reduce gender gaps in leadership and pay 
  • Foster men’s participation in health, care, education and social services 
  • Support women’s participation in green and digital sectors 
  • Increase access to finance and tailored training for women social entrepreneurs 

OECD: Beyond pink-collar jobs for women and the social economy


Opening up opportunities 

Making it easier to do business overall would benefit women at the grassroots level, said Nangalia. “Banks are almost completely gender-blind and not intentional about giving loans to women,” she added: more women-focused funds are needed. Women-led ventures also benefit from different kinds of finance, said Skogström Feldt: “It’s not only about loans, but a mix of different funding streams.”

Banks are almost completely gender-blind and not intentional about giving loans to women - Nitya Nangalia

We also need to consider education in science, technology and engineering fields, said Jean-Louis Bancel, president of Coop FR and Fondation du Crédit Coopératif. Increasing the proportion of women studying subjects like mechanics would enable them to embrace the digital transformation in our society, and would open up more job opportunities. Green innovation is another area of opportunity: just 28% of green jobs are held by women, compared to 51% of non-green jobs, according to the OECD findings. 

However, even when women apply for jobs that are less female-dominated, a gender pay gap can continue when candidates are asked to share their previous salaries. “Since men tend to have wages that are higher, we are perpetuating inequality,” said Schiappa.

And Bruhn suggested another solution. “Quotas and positive discrimination are really necessary to open systems, and very old structures,” she said. Bancel agreed, saying: “Quotas are really useful, we need to use this policy.”


Top photo by ThisIsEngineering on Pexels. 

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