32. Women and the social economy

Amal Chevreau
Natalie Laechelt

The definition of the social economy varies across countries. It typically refers to entities such as associations, co-operatives, mutual societies, foundations and, more recently, social enterprises (see Box 32.1). Their activity is driven by values of solidarity and co-operation, the primacy of people over capital, and democratic and participative governance. Social economy entities distinguish themselves in two respects: their raison d’être, as they primarily address societal needs and pursue a social purpose, and their way of operating because they implement specific business models based on collaboration, typically at the local level. The interest in the social economy has grown significantly of late, although it has existed for centuries.

The social economy represents a notable share of the economy. It is estimated to account for between around 2% and 10% of national GDP depending on the OECD country (OECD, 2020[2]). In France and Spain it has been estimated at 10% of GDP, 4% in Colombia, 3% in Portugal and 1.8% in Poland (European Commission, 2021[7]; Castillo, 2020[8]; European Commission, 2021[9]). It is also a significant employer, counting almost 13.6 million people – about 6.2% of all employees – in the European Union alone (European Commission, 2022[1]).

The share of women in the social economy labour force is higher than in the wider economy in most countries and is estimated to exceed 60% in many of them (Figure 32.1). According to available data, among OECD countries, the share of female employment in the social economy (including social enterprises) is highest in Belgium – 74%, compared to 46% in the total labour force (Observatoire ES, 2015[10]) – and Portugal – 77%, compared to 45% of the total labour force (Dupain et al., 2022[11]). Based on estimates from Belgium, Italy, Luxemburg, Portugal and Spain, foundations are the type of social economy entities with the highest share of women in their labour force (72% on average), followed by associations (70%), mutual organisations (67%), and co-operatives (54%) (OECD, 2023[12]). According to data collected in 17 countries through the 2021-22 European Social Enterprise Monitor, 61% of the social enterprise labour force are women (Dupain et al., 2022[11]).

Women in the social economy and women-led social economy entities are particularly active in the care, education, and social sectors. For example, in France, the share of women by occupation in the social economy is highest in personal and household services at 96% (Observatoire national de l’ESS, 2020[14]). In Italy, these figures are highest in education (81% of the social economy labour force are women, compared to 71% in the total labour force) as well as health and social work (76%, compared to 78% in the total labour force) (ISTAT/EURICSE, 2021[15]). In the Province of Québec, Canada, the leading sector is education, childcare and social services with a share of 84% women (compared to 34% in the total labour force). This concentration coincides with the general specialisation of the social economy in education, care and social services, where welfare provision is often lacking (OECD, 2020[16]).

While salaries are overall lower in the social economy than in the wider economy, gender pay gaps in the social economy are estimated to be lower compared to the wider economy in some countries, such as France, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. Gender discrimination effects on pay have also been reported to be lower than in the wider economy in France and in Spain.

Beyond pay, motivational factors attract women to social economy organisations. Social economy workers obtain alternative non-monetary benefits that go beyond their salary, for instance a sense of belonging to entities that have a social purpose or flexible working conditions, allowing for a better work-life balance. For example, in Spain, co-operatives and worker-owned companies (sociedades laborales) show higher safety, inclusion, diversity, flexibility, non-discrimination and gender equality as well as reduced glass ceiling effects and higher job stability compared to other types of firms (Castro, Santero-Sánchez and Bandeira, 2020[17]). In India, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (with 2.1 million members primarily organised into self-help groups and co-operatives) offers members high quality childcare services for USD 2.5 per month (WIEGO/Alfers, 2016[18]). In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the Asmare Waste Pickers Co-operative opened a community childcare centre to fulfil their member waste pickers’ need for childcare in collaboration with local governments (Ogando and Brito, 2013[19]).

Another motivating factor relates to the resilience of social economy organisations in times of crisis. For example, during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, employment grew by 20% in social co-operatives in Italy and translated into higher employment stability for workers in co-operatives in Spain and Portugal (OECD, 2020[16]).

Women’s share of management positions in many social economy entities appear to be higher than in the wider economy in most countries, with a gap that reaches a maximum of 37 percentage points in Türkiye (Figure 32.2). In OECD countries, according to the data available, these shares are highest in Hungary (72%) and Latvia (70%) and lowest in Greece and Spain (33%).

“Glass ceiling” effects appear smaller in the social economy than in the wider economy. In social enterprises globally, women have been found to experience better opportunities for promotion to decision-making positions (British Council, 2017[20]). When looking at the ratio of women’s share in management position and women’s share of the labour force (i.e. how likely it is for women to become managers taking into account their share in the total labour force) assuming the ideal ratio would be 100%, this ratio is higher in the social economy in most countries, according to available data (Figure 32.3). For example, in France, the women as a share of managers divided by women as a share of the labour force is 81% in social economy enterprises, while it is 78% in the total labour force.

The recognition of women’s work and leadership in the social economy furthers women’s empowerment. Women’s participation in the social economy can support their social and economic empowerment more broadly, especially in emerging economies. In Brazil and India, social economy organisations have shown to improve women’s options to generate income, own and manage land, and become members of productive communities. Participation in governance allows women to bring to the fore topics that affect them, including their health, involvement in economic activity and access to finance. Many social economy organisations focus on topics such as women’s health, gender violence and discrimination. For example, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development in India offers funding to women who have no access to commercial banks. The European Union facilitates access to finance and supports countries and regions’ similar efforts through initiatives such as the European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund.

Thanks to the increased emphasis on social impact and sustainable development (OECD, 2021[21]) and the growing support for the social economy (European Commission, 2021[9]), its professions and practices are being recognised as viable, alternative options of working and doing business. Promoting the social economy can also boost the value of traditionally perceived “women’s roles” (i.e. carer, social worker, educator) and stimulate more inclusive and sustainable practices (e.g. fair trade, ethical finance) focused on the primacy of social and environmental impact, including gender equality, over profit (OECD, 2021[22]). Women-led social economy enterprises have been reported to pursue more sustainable ways of doing business, being more long-term oriented, locally embedded, innovative and resource efficient than other social economy enterprises (Empow’Her, 2019[23]). As an example, the European Social Business Initiative has been promoting social business to positively impact society, the environment, and local communities since 2011. It has given more visibility to social enterprises (e.g. through specialised Erasmus+ programmes), optimised the legal environment across EU countries (e.g. through the public procurement legal reform package of 2014) and improved access to finance (e.g. through the European Social Entrepreneurship Fund). Using social clauses in public procurement can also empower social economy organisations to generate employment opportunities for women and other groups and support the development of the social economy.

The social economy can act as role model for labour market integration of women, including the transition from informal to formal employment. Women’s labour force participation is still below that of men (Chapters 1 and 13), and their share in the informal economy is higher than that of men in many countries (OECD/ILO, 2019[24]). Jobs in the informal economy are generally associated with activities of lower value added and social status than the main sources of income, typically coming from productive activities conducted by men (Hillenkamp and Dos Santos, 2019[25]). The social economy (e.g. worker-owned co-operatives) contributes to formalise many of these jobs (e.g. in household and personal services), improving their visibility and working conditions (OECD, 2021[26]). Participating in the social economy as workers (or volunteers) also helps women improve their networking and advocacy skills, thus facilitating their access to jobs. In India, where women represent 65% of the part-time social enterprise labour force (British Council, 2017[20]), the government supports social economy organisations to protect women from risks associated with working in low-wage, precarious jobs. The social economy can also help women access finance for the creation, expansion or formalisation of their own micro-enterprises.

Women are found to be more active in social entrepreneurship than in commercial entrepreneurship. According to the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, women make up more than two in five social entrepreneurs, while they make up around one in three commercial entrepreneurs (Bosma et al., 2016[27]). Many women enter the pathway of self-employment out of necessity; yet, emphasising the social mission of their business has been found to increase women entrepreneurs’ chances to receive funding (Lee and Huang, 2018[28]). In particular, young women experience hurdles to enter into (social) entrepreneurship, in particular linked to skills gaps and greater barriers to access debt and equity financing (OECD/European Commission, 2021[29]; OECD, 2022[30]) (Chapters 28 and 29).

In many countries, social economy entities are at the forefront of providing tailored training and acting as intermediaries in financing to support women’s entrepreneurship, including social entrepreneurship (OECD/European Commission, 2023[31]). Policy makers can make use of their existing infrastructures and knowledge to best support women as a particularly vulnerable group of aspiring (social) entrepreneurs.

In the wider economy, the pay gap for full-time employees is estimated at 12% in OECD countries (OECD Gender Data Portal). The social economy holds lessons on reducing gender pay gaps, since its values of solidarity, the primacy of people over capital, and democratic and participative governance are drivers of gender equality. However, data and information are further needed on practices, outcomes, and impacts of social economy entities. A comparable set of indicators on employment in the social economy (e.g. types of jobs, contracts, sectors) disaggregated by gender could help better benchmark and monitor progress over time. It could also allow to determine where reinforcing male participation in the social economy could be necessary (i.e. to avoid segregation of the social economy from the wider economy as a “women’s economy”) and contribute to avoid dual labour market dynamics (e.g. worse working conditions in the social economy in terms of a more common use of part time and temporary contracts as well as lower wages than the wider economy).

Push factors such as stereotypical gender roles lead to a (self)selection of women into specific sectors in the social economy (e.g. care) and into lower-level jobs. This can be addressed through measures such as dedicated leadership training, tailored access to funding and financing. Capitalising on pull factors of the social economy (e.g. social impact, better work-life balance and lower gender gaps) can improve job quality for all, for instance incentivising firms to provide flexible worktime arrangements, more democratic governance models or childcare services (OECD, 2023[12]).

Countries are working on fostering women’s presence in social economy organisations across all sectors and in leadership positions. In France, gender equality is for example explicitly mentioned in the 2014 law on the social economy and the French National Observatory of the Social Economy operates a working group on the topic (Observatoire national de l’ESS, 2020[14]). In Spain, the Law 5/2011 on the Social Economy refers to the active involvement of social economy organisations in labour market policies to support quality jobs for many groups including women. In 2021, Spain adopted guidelines for its Sustainable Development Strategy, highlighting the social economy’s potential of advancing women into managerial positions, thus supporting the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 5 (gender equality) (CEPES, 2021[32]).

Currently, only 28% of green jobs are held by women (OECD, 2023[33]) and gender equality is still rarely prioritised in policies on infrastructure or urban development, energy, research and innovation in sustainable consumption (OECD, 2022[34]). The digital and green transitions offer another lever to increase women’s participation in traditionally male dominated, high growth sectors, preventing a further segmentation of labour markets. On the digital transition, emerging forms of social economy structures such as platform co-operatives help address issues raised around platform work such as unclear employment status for workers, no systematic guarantee for social protections or employee rights and a lack of traceability and transparency of user and employee data collected. On the green transition, including more women in decision-making and leadership positions around the environment could bring about more sustainable decisions and actions (Strumskyte, Ramos Magaña and Bendig, 2022[35]). As an example, with the “Women in Circular Economy Leadership Award” the state Government of South Australia provides financial assistance and mentoring to emerging and aspiring women leaders in local waste and resource recovery industries (Green Industries SA, 2022[36]).


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