Internalized Sexism in the Grocery Co-op World

Internalized Sexism in the Grocery Co-op World

  |  January 22, 2021

Our food co-ops are microcosms of the larger society we operate in. We are not immune to the inequities of our society–by race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, mental and physical ability, religion and national origin and more. With increasing urgency, our co-op organizations and events are starting the work of anti-racism and abolition. It is exciting and heartening to be part of this movement after years of inaction.

As we talk openly of the need to increase diversity, equity and inclusion among member-owners, boards and staff, I don’t hear much talk about the need for equity between men and women (and those who do not identify as male), perhaps because it’s assumed that we have already arrived there, or at least that we’re doing better than the rest of society. And in some ways we are.

When I started out in the workforce, women could not yet own credit cards in their own names. By law we were not supposed to lift more than 30 pounds (though I was slinging 50-pound bags of grain in a co-op warehouse.) I was denied car insurance because I lived as an unmarried woman in a household with unmarried men. The food co-ops of the 1970’s were places where women could try out new roles because there was no one to say we couldn’t. You didn’t need credentials. Everyone was learning on the job. Of course it was a much different marketplace then.

Forty plus years later, I take a lot of satisfaction in seeing so many women in leadership positions in food co-ops, navigating the turbulent market with grit and skill. And yet…the data we have from the General Manager Compensation Database tells a story of accelerating inequality in how our male and female leaders are paid. How does this happen?

To gain insights, I conversed with 30 female co-op GMs over the course of November and December 2020. Most of these conversations took place by video conference.With a few I had an extended email correspondence.

Their stories fell into four categories:

  1. “I’m told, ‘Don’t be so aggressive’ when I ask for more.”
    This is the classically sexist scenario. In some cases, a female GM succeeds a man who was paid much more. In others, she succeeds another low-paid woman. Under her leadership the co-op is successful. But when she advocates for a pay raise, she’s told she’s being “pushy” and “aggressive”, and her proposal is turned down. I heard half a dozen stories like this, and the way I feel about it, even one is too many.

  2. “I advocated for myself and won respect—and a raise.”
    Another half dozen had the opposite story. They learned what their male peers were earning, brought the data to their boards’ attention and asked for parity. They told their boards they expected to be treated with the same attention to equity as the board expected the GM to treat the staff. Over time, they built relationships of respect. It was inspiring to talk with these women.

  3. “My board tries to give me raises and bonuses, but I turn them down.”
    Of the four categories, this was the largest. The board demonstrates its appreciation for the GM’s contributions, but she chooses not to accept the money for herself. Instead she puts the funds toward raising the salaries of her management team. Or she wants to raise the overall pay scale before earning anymore herself. And/or the co-op is not doing well financially, and she feels she’s earning enough already. Anecdotally, I know a few male GMs who have made the same decision for the same reasons—but not necessarily year after year.

  4. “I don’t deserve to be paid more.”
    The GMs in this category lack self-confidence, even when their leadership has resulted in objectively successful outcomes. They were hired from within, and more than one said, “I don’t have a business degree”—even though this attribute is extremely rare among co-op GMs, regardless of gender. The other factor in this scenario is that the board accepts the GM’s low pay as right and fitting. These boards are setting themselves up for sticker shock when the time comes to hire their next GM.

Internal vs. External Hires

Throughout these 30 conversations, I repeatedly heard the theory that most female GMs are hired from within and have been in their jobs a long time, while male GMs are more likely to have been hired recently from outside and expect, and get, higher pay than boards would offer an internal candidate. However, this theory is not supported by the data. Roughly the same proportion (34% of women, 39% of men) have been in their positions for over 10 years, most of these women and men were hired from within, and the men are getting paid more than the women now. And the differential has increased from the last time we measured it in 2016.

Internalized Sexism

This project has been an exploration of the impacts of internalized sexism for me . One manifestation is that in the first and fourth scenarios I described above, there are female board members who are participating in these decisions on their female GMs’ compensation. Another manifestation is the belief among many of the women I talked to that general managers ought not to be paid “too much,” especially in relation to other staff. I think egalitarianism fits in well with the cooperative values, but in an economy where (depending on which Google link you follow) CEOs are paid 100, 200, 300 times the starting pay in their companies, how meaningful is the difference between a co-op GM earning 3:1 vs. 4:1 or 5:1?

Money Isn’t Everything

It’s fair to say that money is not the primary motivator for co-op general managers. After all, for the same amount of responsibility, they could earn a lot more in another type of business. Still, money is the most obvious and potent signifier of respect in the dominant culture in our society. It shows where our priorities lie. Consider the pay of the people working with our children and our elders, (if they are even paid at all). I believe that the pay disparity between male and female GMs in food co-ops is telling boards of directors something important.

Respect is not just about the amount of GM compensation. The board also shows respect by:

  • Conducting a timely evaluation for the GM, not allowing the timeline to slide.

  • Accepting the basic framework of the GM’s compensation proposal, while still being free to question the details.

  • Facing one’s own individual attitudes toward money and acknowledging how they could impact decisions on GM compensation.

  • Adopting a policy on the Board/Management relationship that ensures fair treatment for the GM with internally and externally equitable compensation, (just as the GM is expected to do for staff).

  • Taking into account the demands on women GMs with children at home when setting expectations for their presence at work, at meetings and events.

  • Recognizing the extreme challenges of finding qualified GMs on the labor market.


Learn more about the Gender Equity Project here. 

About the Author

Carolee Colter

Human Resources for Boards &...

[email protected]
250-505-5166

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