Bridging the digital gender divide: Coop stories of women participating in innovation and technology

03 Mar 2023

Anchored in its values and principles, the cooperative movement provides a suited environment to effectively bridge the digital gender divide. Here we visit some great examples of cooperatives striving for women’s inclusion and empowerment in innovation and technology. And we listen to some first-hand testimonies from different parts of the world who are sharing their views and experiences as women in such a predominantly male-dominated sector as the tech sector. They are all inspiring role models for women and girls!

Eva - Canada

Loriane Comeau - Eva

Its name is already a statement. Operating in two sectors particularly dominated by men - the ICT and the driving sectors -, Eva is a platform cooperative offering driving services in different countries. Eva is taking gender-inclusive measures, such as the plan to add in April 2024 to its mobile application the possibility for women, trans and non-binary passengers to select a driver member who is also a woman, a trans or non-binary person. Another initiative is the addition of pronouns in its staff’s email signatures.

As in the rest of the cooperatives, democratic practices make a difference and Eva encourages women to participate in the committee that allows each delivery member, driver and passenger to take part in the decision-making of the cooperative.

In its small administrative team, Eva has several women with great leadership skills. One of them is Loriane Comeau, Communications Manager, who, despite the great support she is receiving from the management and colleagues in her office, is fighting against prejudices and sexist practices within her job. “I believe that women are, in general, taken less seriously than men professionally, and I feel like it’s harder to be seen as a figure of authority. I have often been asked to pass the phone to a man when I was giving technical assistance to someone. On other occasions, people thought I was my boss’s secretary, even though I have a management position”, Loriane acknowledged. “It is clear to me that the influence imposed on people in a behavioural, aesthetical, and professional perspective is greatly driven by gender. As a result, I believe that women are not encouraged to pursue careers in entrepreneurship, business and technology. Based on my own experience, it can be easily intimidating to step into this world and be the only woman in your department”, she added.

FACTTIC - Argentina

Maia Numerosky - Eryx.

FACTTIC is the Argentine Federation of Technology, Innovation and Knowledge Worker Cooperatives (Federación Argentina de Cooperativas de Trabajo de Tecnología, Innovación y Conocimiento), representing cooperatives that offer IT services in Argentina.

In 2022, FACTTIC commemorated the International Women’s Day with a story covering key gender-related challenges, unmet needs, and opportunities within the tech coop movement.

One of the women in tech featured in the story is Maia Numerosky, Data Science & Operation Research at one of FACTTIC’s members, the Eryx cooperative. Building further on her account in the article, Maia highlights three types of barriers that women find to develop a career in the ICT sector in her country: the over-representation of men in STEM degrees - according to the study “Programmed future” by Chicas en Tecnología, in 2019 in Argentina, only 16% of students in computer programming degree were women -; the social and cultural stereotypes that push women away from technical positions; and the tendency to prioritise strong and charismatic personalities for leadership positions. On the other hand, she acknowledges that, being a very horizontal and inclusive organisation, the ecosystem of her cooperative is a privileged one and sexist practices are unusual.

In a moment in which artificial intelligence (AI) is a trending topic in mass media, it is critical to take a gender perspective in the design of AI systems. As Maia notes, algorithms are trained with data and this data can easily reflect current biases that will be further reproduced by the algorithms. Maia also points out the importance of gender diversity in software development teams, as women are more likely to take into account factors that affect women and not men while developing an application - for instance, the menstrual cycle in a health app.

Central Coop - United Kingdom

Kharissa Cameron - Central Coop

Central Coop is a consumer cooperative active in the food, funeral care and travel sectors among others. We talk to Kharissa Cameron, Head of Enterprise Architecture & Planning. Kharissa began her career in technology twenty years ago. “I had always loved computers but never really thought it was a career path for me but by a twist of fate I was fortunate enough to find an opportunity to study a degree course that provided funding for women wanting to move into IT. I remember my first day at one particular company, I walked into the office and it suddenly hit me – nobody was like me. I was the only woman.” she explains.

It was thanks to her determination and work that she overcame the barriers Kharissa found in her career path. “As I progressed through my career I constantly had to prove myself, prove my worth, prove that even though I’m a woman I can do this just as well.” she admitted. In the cooperative she has not only found an environment that supports and recognises her job, but female referents that have inspired her, too.

Central Coop has an Inclusion Working Group that recognises and promotes the importance of equality within the cooperative by raising awareness and ensuring that its working environment is fully inclusive.

Pico Foundation - Italy

In March 2022, the Pico Foundation partnered with Radio Activa’s podcast “WOW – Women On Web”. Conducted by the journalists Federica Meta and Francesca Pucci, the podcast promotes women’s participation in innovation projects and features the stories of  women cooperators engaged in innovation and digital transformation.

Find all episodes (in Italian) here.

KAYA - The Philippines

Sylvia Okinlay NATCCO

KAYA is a cloud-based shared digital platform designed for cooperatives in the Philippines. It enables more efficient coop operations and ease of transactions for the individual members and businesses through a range of payment and financial services. It was created in 2016 by the ICA member National Confederation of Coooperatives (NATCCO) together with ACCU and PFCCO to reinforce the vision of an integrated network, where services such as digital payments and technology solutions are ideally provided by the cooperative federations.

Considering that 59% of the members of the the NATCCO's member cooperatives are women and two thirds of users or accountholders of KAYA are women and mostly mothers, women are a key audience for the KAYA platform.

KAYA is particularly helpful for women as, in the Philippines, they are generally the ones responsible for managing the household finances. Sending money to children for school allowance and tuition fees is among the popular use cases of KAYA, as it is cheaper to send money on KAYA than in other payment platforms. Also, as bills can be paid conveniently at the comfort of their own homes, mothers are able to cut on transportation costs and save on time.

NATCCO promotes women's inclusion in development and technology-based jobs by providing training and education programmes, by removing barriers and ensuring an inclusive environment - by providing the resources and support women need to succeed -, by providing leadership opportunities - 60% of members of NATCCO's board of directors are women, the current IT Committee is composed of three members, two of which are women, and both the groups of Information Technology and Payment Systems are headed by women.

According to Sylvia Okinlay-Paraguya, NATCCO's Chief Executive Officer, cooperatives should make sure that there are safe spaces for women, children and youth. Cooperatives should engage in digital literacy. "This can be reached by facilitating the appropriate devices, by teaching members on the use of digital financial services. Entrepreneurship can also be enhanced via digital marketing and access to platforms and channels for online selling. At the same time, members and the children and youth should be taught on how to protect themselves from online harassments, cybercrime." she affirms.

Find more information on the Kaya project as well as other innovative cooperative projects in Asia-Pacific here.

Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union - Ethiopia

The Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union (OCFCU) together with Women Engage for a Common Future Deutschland e.V. (WECF) have launched a project to bring solar energy solutions to women farmers to facilitate the planting of coffee and other vegetables. Solar energy is also used by women of the cooperatives for office-related tasks. This experience shows the importance of improving women's access to internet as well as to education and training to bridge the digital gender divide. The Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union believes that, considering that technology generates great opportunities, the presence of women in tech positions within the cooperative can help reduce the overall gender pay gap.