2.1. Cooperatives as Drivers of Entrepreneurship and Equality
Cooperatives can be defined as anonymous associations of people who voluntarily join to satisfy their economic, social, and cultural common needs and expectations through a jointly owned and democratically managed enterprise [20
]. In these organisations, certain basic values (e.g. mutual aid, responsibility, democracy, equality, and solidarity) coexist with ethical ones, such as honesty, transparency, social responsibility, and concern for others [2
]. Therefore, the cooperative assumes not only the responsibility of bringing economic benefits to its owners, but also of improving their quality of life and that of the larger community in which it is located.
Researchers have hitherto tended to neglect cooperatives because they do not have a clear place in a capitalist system where the private sector is assumed to be the dominant player in promoting economic development [15
]. Nevertheless, cooperatives have grown in popularity in recent years because the focus on social outcomes places them in the social economy (SE), one of the priorities for the European Union (EU), and because they display a countercyclical economic behaviour. In this respect, and despite some criticisms [22
], the capacity of the social and cooperative economy to react to the effects of the economic crisis on employment and wage adjustment has been acknowledged [17
]. Thus, cooperatives are regarded as viable alternatives to unemployment and as a way of re-entering the labour market [16
]. In addition, they have shown greater flexibility and adaptability in adverse circumstances than other organizational models, and a superior ability to facilitate access to employment for disadvantaged groups and socially excluded people [23
In addition, since Dees’ contribution [26
], social agents—who include cooperative’s owners or associates—have been regarded as entrepreneurs and agents of change in the social sector, given their innovative profiles and their levels of commitment and responsibility [27
]. Understanding why women become entrepreneurs has been subject of debate, especially because they are making a considerable contribution to entrepreneurial activity (for a comprehensive review, see [19
]). In the same vein, this activity stands out given that it can contribute to female’s careers and, in turn, to reduce the inequalities between women and men from a professional approach.
On another note, scholars have argued that the business creation process may vary according to the entrepreneur’s gender and that there are demand-side differences in the expectations of entrepreneurial men and women [29
]. Given that entrepreneurship is embedded in a social context [34
], recent research has been addressing the external factors conditioning the entrepreneurial activity [19
], granting a special attention to the socio-cultural factors. In this respect, fear of failure has been stressed as one of the most important drivers of entrepreneurial behaviour, especially among female entrepreneurs [30
]. The entrepreneurship literature has suggested that women have a greater fear of failure than men, so they behave more conservatively when they undertake a business venture [38
]. In this sense, women’s preference for the cooperatives’ business model over other more traditional corporate structures [41
] can be explained by a perception that cooperatives are less risky as they are organisations aimed at cost and profit sharing.
Despite this economic approach, the role of women in cooperatives has been mainly addressed from a motivational perspective. The contributions of Bonet [42
] and Senent [44
] are a landmark in this field, since both authors have extensively addressed the link between women and social economy, notably through cooperatives. They argued that some of the principles of cooperatives, such as cooperation, solidarity, fair and democratic management, equal voting rights, self-assistance and self-responsibility, and social responsiveness towards the community are the main driving factors for women in choosing this corporate model. In addition, they noted that female individual circumstances, whether personal, social, or familiar, can underpin these fundamental values.
Among the universal principle of cooperation, the “Volunteer and Open Partnership Principle” prevails to guarantee equality [20
]. This means that cooperatives have an open-door policy, so that any individual who accepts the responsibilities of the partnership can become a cooperative member. Under this perspective, Senent [45
] noted that the promotion of equal opportunities can be inferred from cooperative principles. Recently, Pérez [47
] in a thorough review of the laws governing cooperatives in Spain, pointed out that Spain’ legal framework explicitly requires a duty of compliance with this objective. Other scholars argue that women prioritise mutual aid, collaborative work and non-profitable goals over financial gain [12
]. In addition, the “Education, Training, and Information Principle” implies that cooperatives offer opportunities for education and training for their partners, which suggests that these institutions can favour female empowerment more than other organizations [49
]. This view is of interest, as there is growing evidence that participation in entrepreneurial education and organisational training programmes enhances business self-efficacy [50
]. This in turn, benefits democratic management, as women can actively decide on the scope of the programmes and incorporate their interests and expectations into business development [5
Finally, another set of studies on women in cooperatives focused on the relevance of organisation systems averse to discrimination, which allow the participation under conditions of equality [45
]. For instance, Sánchez [53
] suggested that cooperatives can favour the implementation of reconciliation policies, such as flexible timework or parenthood leave, that can act as a motivating factor. These policies relate to the principles of self-management and self-organisation of working time that traditionally characterise cooperatives [45
]. Since cooperatives have a set of intrinsic “cooperative” values and operating principles, actions to promote genuine equality can be implemented more easily than elsewhere [45
]. As cooperatives pay special attention to collective needs and social problems, they are especially sensitive to issues related to gender equality and the adoption of socially responsible behaviour [54
]. This sensitivity, in turn, enables the implementation of reconciliation policies [56
], which have been proved more important to women than men [57
], leading to the recommendation of flexible work policies to encourage women’s career advancement [60
In sum, previous research has suggested that cooperatives have certain characteristics (e.g. collaboration and mutual assistance, democratic participation in management and putting people first) that can be adjusted particularly to women’s needs and expectations (individual adjustment); to their way of working (as a team, with high-quality social relationships) and to women’s priorities (such as reconciliation and equal opportunities). Altogether, one would expect that these factors can have a driving role in female entrepreneurship. So far, however, there has been little empirical evidence of these relationships, which are addressed in this study.
2.2. Contextualization of the Research
The environmental conditions of the cooperative’s location largely affect its economic viability [61
]. Context does matter [19
], in particular the formal, legal and financial requirements to constitute a company can be decisive for choosing a specific type of organization [13
]. Moreover, women’s entrepreneurial endeavours seem to be especially sensitive to specific cultural, legal and economic frameworks [19
]. As a result, several external factors can motivate the decision to go into business through a cooperative [66
]. Among the exogenous factors favouring cooperatives entrepreneurship are the support required to start a new project, the available funds, government programs (supporting cooperatives versus other business initiatives), and the social acceptance of collective employment rather than self-employment [67
In Spain, the popularity of cooperatives has been growing since the 1990s, endorsing the general discourse enhancing social economy from policymakers in international institutions, mainly at the EU level. Spain is a country with a long co-operative tradition, and in fact it is one of the world’s most dynamic countries in terms of rate of creation, which is higher than other European countries [15
]. Regarding this point, Diaz-Foncea and Marcuello [68
] noted that the Spanish rate of creation of cooperatives per year (more than 200) notably exceeds those from other European countries, such as United Kingdom (132 per year), France (138), or Finland (62 per year). Moreover, the Spanish government has traditionally enhanced the cooperatives, especially during the recent financial crisis [21
]. Despite this public support, the number of cooperatives decreased by 12.5% in the decade between 2009 and 2018. However, the number of cooperative’ workers increased from 298,013 to 322,880 (Spanish Business Federation for the Social Economy, CEPES, 2019), which suggests a concentration process rather than a destruction one. More than 80 per cent of Spanish cooperatives are worker-associated cooperatives, with an average turnover at €1.3 million and estimated direct employment of 210,000 people (mostly as members and working partners). These organizations cover all economic activities, with greater presence in manufacturing and services industries, social services, health, healthcare, and education.
In this context, the number of cooperatives in Galicia has increased by more than 3% since 2010 [70
]. Moreover, this region has a long-term tradition on cooperatives [71
], and the Galician government has reinforced this trend by ensuring public policies to promote these organisations. Thus, Galicia is the first region to have a legal framework on social economy (SE), which includes cooperatives and cooperatives that contribute by more than 5% to Galicia’s GDP [70
]. This rate places this region among the most important in the Spanish cooperative sector and configures a suitable scenario to address the research questions. Building on previous literature on women in cooperatives and the characteristics of the Spanish context, this research aims to answer the following research questions: (1) What factors influence women’s engagement in cooperatives? (2) What exogenous factors favour women’s cooperative entrepreneurship? (3) What are the links between women’s engagement in cooperatives and their (a) social and economic expectations and (b) individual needs? (4) What is the perceived value of cooperatives, in relation to female associates’ perceptions of (a) equality and (b) work-life reconciliation practices?