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  • Doreen Yomoah

Are Tech Cooperatives the Answer to Getting More Women in Tech?

Today is the International Day of Cooperatives, hosted by the United Nations and the International Cooperatives Alliance (ICA).

According the UN, Coops Day exists to “increase awareness of cooperatives” and to “underscore the contributions of the cooperative movement to resolving the major problems addressed by the United Nations and to strengthening and extending the partnerships between the international cooperative movement and other actors”.

Cooperatives are businesses that are worker-owned (rather than owned by shareholders), and that put people over profit. They can take many forms and can exist in any industry, including the tech industry.

According to Fast Company,

“Tech worker co-ops come in all shapes and sizes and operate across a wide variety of industries. From web development to graphic design, web hosting, engineering, manufacturing, and more – technology workers anywhere can band together to accomplish what they couldn’t do alone.

What makes cooperatives an exciting alternative is their structure: they are democratic businesses owned and operated equally by a specific membership. Some co-ops have memberships composed of only workers, some of consumers, some of producers”.

In other words, tech coops are exactly what they sound like: “worker-owned cooperatives that operate in the information technology industry”. For people who feel alienated by big tech — like women, girls or LGBTQ people — joining or starting a tech cooperative is an option to building a career in an inclusive space where they can do the work they love.

The Sassafras Tech Collective, a “worker-owned technology cooperative specializing in web/app design and development for social justice organizations, non-profits, academics, artists, and others”, is one such space. One of Sassafras’s co-founders, Jill Dimond, speaks to this point: “‘in a former job, I experienced sexual harassment from a client but I was not in a situation where I could do much about it”. By contrast, being part of a cooperative gives colleagues and co-owners the power to decide which clients to work for, rather than a hierarchical structure where clients are chosen and assigned from the top down.

This year’s Day of Cooperatives theme is COOPS 4 DECENT WORK. The ICA is “shouting out the message that cooperatives are people-centred enterprises characterized by democratic control that prioritise human development and social justice within the workplace”.

Many tech cooperatives’ vision is consistent with this year’s theme and the sustainable development agenda of justice for all more broadly, rather than having a sole focus on profit. EITA, for example, is a Brazilian tech cooperative that works to “deliver open source technology to social movements”. One of their projects was an app that help people access health care, paying special attention to the needs of LGBTQ people and women. They have also worked with ethnic minority groups such as Black and Roma populations, and rural and indigenous groups.

Quilted, a Berkeley, California-based coop, focuses on social value in the projects they choose take on, “stitching together technology and social change”. Some of their previous projects include the websites of The F Word, a British feminist blog; and the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment, a “multi-racial alliance of feminists committed to promoting the social and economic empowerment of women in a context of global peace and justice; and to eliminating poverty”.

Gender equality in tech in the sustainable development era means that instead of continuing with business as usual, where just a handful of the population has control over resources. Making careers in tech accessible people of all genders will accelerate the achievement of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, especially Targets 9B[1] and 8.3[2].

Tech cooperatives we need to find a way to make sure that tech works for all of us, not just the elite few.

About the author

Doreen Akiyo Yomoah joined the International Telecommunication Union in May, where she leads communications and outreach for the EQUALS Global Partnership. Prior to working at ITU, she spent four years at the United Nations Research Institute a Communications and Research Consultant working on social protection and gender.

Picture via Unsplash

[1] Support domestic technology development, research and innovation in developing countries, including by ensuring a conducive policy environment for, inter alia, industrial diversification and value addition to commodities

[2] Promote development-oriented policies that support productive activities, decent job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, and encourage the formalization and growth of micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises, including through access to financial services

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