News of Norway, June 6, 2003
OSLO, Norway -- Norwegian women like to tell the story of a young boy who grew up in the 1980s during the term of female Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. According to the tale, the boy asked his mother whether it might be possible for a man one day to become prime minister of Norway.
In a country where women make up close to 40 percent of politicians and 60 percent of university students, where they have held titles from prime minister to Supreme Court justice to minister of defense and where 80 percent of women have jobs, it is no surprise that Norwegians pride themselves on their international reputation as a role model for women’s rights.
But, with only 7 percent of Norway’s corporate board and executive positions held by women, the country known as a leader in gender equality is looking to American corporations for guidance in evening the gender scales in the business world.
As of early 2002, women made up about 12 percent of corporate board and executive positions in the United States. And while 85 percent of U.S. Fortune 500 companies have at least one woman on their corporate boards, little more than half of Norway’s top 250 companies can boast even one female board member.
“In the U.S., you have a more open policy, I think because you have all kinds of reviews of what people are doing,” said Marit Hoel, director of the Oslo-based Center for Corporate Diversity, which researches and lobbies for gender equality in Norwegian business.
Hoel said her country has only recently begun to evaluate companies to identify and root out gender bias. She sees the issue as not just a matter of political incorrectness, but miscalculated corporate strategy that, if uncorrected, could hurt Norwegian companies’ ability to compete in world markets.
“Overlooking all this female talent in Norway could be quite dangerous in the long run…especially when the oil resources run out,” Hoel said. “The United States is changing much faster.”
Hoel said U.S.-based oil companies operating in Norway are among the best at hiring women for top management positions. Shell, whose board of directors is nearly 30 percent female, and Phillips Petroleum, with a 20 percent female board, are examples of corporate diversity that Norwegian companies should model, she said.
“This is the Scandinavia that likes to profile the gender equality issue,” she said. “Do we want to be at the table with the Fortune 500 or the Norway 250?”
Experts point to several reasons why the “Norwegian 250” doesn’t yet look like the U.S. Fortune 500 in terms of the number of women in top management roles. One often-mentioned factor is the country’s extremely segregated labor market, where women overwhelmingly choose jobs in the public sector over careers in private business.
In 1986, Gro Harlem Brundtland formed a government where 8 of 18 Ministers were women. They were, from left: Anne-Lise Bakken, Kirsti Kolle Grøndahl, Vesla Vetlesen, Sissel Rønbeck, Brundtland, Tove Strand Gerhardsen, Helen Bøsterud and Gunhild Øyangen. Photo: Scanpix
Hoel explained this self-imposed gender divide as a decision women make to avoid financial risk because public sector jobs are abundant and secure in Norway. She added that the United States doesn’t face a similar “gender drain” to the public sector because there are relatively fewer comparable public sector jobs.
Lene Nilsen, an adviser at Norway’s Center for Gender Equality, said public sector jobs are appealing to women because their family-friendly policies cater to women balancing careers and children by offering flexible schedules.
“In the USA or France, people are more used to working long days,” she said. “In Norway … women that want to prioritize their children have focused on the public sector.”
Ironically, Norway’s extremely progressive parental leave policies, which offer mothers up to 12 months time off with 80 percent pay after having a child, may actually hurt women’s chances for top jobs in private businesses.
“If you start behaving this way in an oil company, if you say, ‘Well, I’m going to have a baby and take two years off…they would obviously not set you on the fast track for a career,” Hoel said. “But it doesn’t matter in the public sector – there you’re a symbol of their policies working.”
Arni Hole, director general for Norway’s Ministry of Children and Family Affairs, said this attitude split between the public and private sector ends up shutting women out of top business careers. She said businesses are afraid to hire women who might take time off for motherhood, while women fear choosing jobs in the private sector that might offer them less time with their children.
In an attempt to curb this imbalance, Norway’s minister for trade and industry, Conservative Party member Ansgar Gabrielsen, announced in February 2002 new laws intended to force companies to balance the gender of their boards. The legislation, which went into affect on March 7, 2002, and caused great debate in Norway, required 40 percent representation of each gender on the boards of state-owned companies by March 2003.
More significantly, Gabrielsen threatened similar legislation for private limited companies by 2005 if they do not voluntarily comply with the 40 percent gender guidelines.
While applauded by many, the idea of legislating equality on private businesses was met with stiff resistance from some corporations, men and even young women.
“We don’t want the government to tell owners who should be on their boards,” said Sigrun Vageng, an executive director of NHO, a Norwegian business confederation made up of 16,000 companies.
Vageng, 53, herself a woman who climbed to the top rungs of the corporate ladder, insisted that Norwegian businesses have an interest and a desire in placing more women in top positions. “It’s bad policy for the companies to look at only half of the population when they choose their boards or their leaders – that’s bad business.” But, she added, “We don’t want it done with legislation.”
Vageng said most Norwegian companies will be able to meet the proposed 40 percent quota on their own. The NHO has instituted mentoring programs and a weekly “Friday’s Woman” section on their website profiling a successful Norwegian businesswoman – attempts to change corporate policies while avoiding government legislation.
Knut Oftung, an adviser for Norway’s Center for Gender Equality, said the climate change in Norwegian businesses is proof the quota system, or at least the possibility of a quota system, is working.
“The threat is strategically smart,” he said. “It has forced the leaders of companies to rethink gender as a factor, which they had not done.”
Indeed, Norwegian companies began hiring women for top management positions within months of the announcement of the 40 percent guidelines. According to Hoel, 21 out of Norway’s top 100 companies added at least one more woman to their corporate boards by November 2002. She expects that as of March 2003, Norway’s top 50 companies will average close to 20 percent female representation on their boards, a significant milestone from the less than seven percent just a year ago.
Hoel said that despite some Norwegian companies’ initial resistance to the announcement, change is imminent. “We showed them Norway is far behind the United States,” she said. “They will adjust, they have to. This is where the market is going.”