In 2020, the Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives conducted a survey of board compensation practices at twenty-six large and well-established producer/consumer co-operatives and credit unions in Canada—what might be considered as dominant or hegemonic organizations within the country’s wide-ranging co-operative sector. This survey also revealed some information about board diversity. To those operating in this field, it may be unsurprising that the boards of the surveyed organizations remain more ethnically homogenous (read: white) than the general population, with five percent of directors being Indigenous and four percent belonging to a visible minority. What’s more, while these organizations are more inclusive of women than the boards of investor-owned firms (IOFs), they are still far from representative, with just over a third (34 percent) of directors being female.
Interestingly, the study also revealed that surveyed cooperatives with explicit diversity targets had, overall, fewer women and minorities on their boards than the co-ops without targets. This might indicate that co-operatives with less board diversity are more inclined to set diversity targets in order to overcome their homogeneity. However, given the particular conditions of board creation in co-operatives—where directors must be members and must be elected by the membership—diversity, by necessity, must be cultivated rather than decreed. This means that, regardless of the organization’s diversity targets or policies, co-operative boards and management must engage in practices and processes that welcome, encourage, and support the participation and input of diverse members in order to diversify their board.
Drawing on a wide range of sources, this paper sketches out what these practices and processes might be, and how co-operative organizations, with their particular structural barriers to board diversification, might begin to understand and cultivate diversity differently and to greater effect.