Co-ops must modernise, warns ICOS boss as new figures reveal just 2pc of directors are women
The dearth of women and young people on co-op boards is 'disgraceful', says chief executive TJ Flanagan
In the 1800s, Horace Plunkett devised the Irish co-operative model on the basis of equality and fairness but the current figures for gender and age diversity on the boards of Irish co-ops are a far cry from those principles.
Out of the 500 directors in Ireland's 30 largest co-ops, 10 directors are women, while the average age of board members is 60.
Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS) CEO TJ Flanagan stated that the figures are "disgraceful" and ways need to be found to make co-operatives relevant to young people and women.
"Those figures are to our shame. We have an industry which has leaders but no disrespect to them, they have a median age of around 60," Mr Flanagan told the recent ICOS LeadFarm conference in Naas, Co Kildare. "We have to figure out how to get people involved and challenge ourselves and ask is the model relevant. The co-op model is only strong because of the strength of the previous generation. People got up on a rainy evening to go to a meeting in a hall or co-op office. We need to find the new guys and girls now."
Mr Flanagan also cited lack of time and lack of connection to the co-operative model as the main reasons for the shortage of young people and women on boards.
However once women join the co-operative board he says it has a "transformative effect" on the workings of the board.
"Every co-op that is lucky enough to have a woman on the board will tell you it's a culture change on the board. The meeting starts on time, finishes on time and sticks to the agenda. It avoids all the other extraneous issues that boards of men get involved discussing," explained Mr Flanagan.
One such woman who had this effect on her local Bandon co-op was farmer Maire McCarthy who is now in her second term on the board, having previously thought she "hadn't a hope in hell" in getting elected to it.
"Perception is the problem here. You should put yourself out there.
"You shouldn't see the fact that you're 25 or a female as a barrier," said Maire.
Maire feels that the co-op shareholding should be viewed as a family shareholding rather than belonging to one member, which ICOS' James Doyle says in some cases there are mechanisms within the rulebook to allow sons and daughters become joint shareholders and attend co-op meetings.
Glanbia Director Patsy Ahern feels lengthy, rambling co-op meetings are off-putting for young people and women who lead busy lives and that a huge change is needed.
"Chairmen of regional committee need more training. The meetings are too long, they are talking shops rather than talking about the real business of the day, and testing young people's patience, it's killing the thing for young people," added Mr Ahern.
Dairy farmer Louise Crowley (24) from Co Limerick says the "lack of communication and having senior members of the co-op telling you, you're not eligible to go to meetings when you probably are" is a problem within co-ops.
Galway beef farmer, Robert Lally said that feelings of incompetence when faced with talking to senior members is an issue for young members.
"There's a serious age gap. Senior members talking sometimes down to you and maybe not valuing your point of view is common," said Robert.
Meanwhile dairy farmer's son, Enda Shalvey from Cootehill, Co Cavan thinks setting up a youth committee within co-ops could be a solution to encouraging more youth involvement.
"I know it might be seen as a sub committee, but we need a foothold and to start somewhere and to get a good relationship with the board but give and take and respect both ways are needed."
Louise, Enda and Robert were recent participants in a LeadFarm training initiative devised by ICOS in an effort to get young people more interested in co-ops and train farmers to face challenges they may encounter within their business.
The programme involved a recent trip to Spanish farms and agri businesses.
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