By Stephanie Holmes
A place at high table: Norway's energy ministers are often women
From 1 January 2008 it became compulsory for Norwegian companies to appoint a substantial number of women to their management boards, but is government intervention on gender issues the best way to create real change in the corporate world?
Norway now leads the globe in gender equality at board level, with a higher percentage of women at the uppermost echelons of its firms than any other country.
The change was achieved by introducing tough legislation threatening to close publicly listed firms that failed to comply with the 40% female quota for board members.
Days after the 1 January 2008 deadline passed, almost every single listed firm has female faces on its board.
The government can now proclaim its policies a success - and they have provoked a vital debate about women and work.
"As of today, all major publicly listed companies do comply with the law," says Marit Hoel, head of Norway's Centre for Corporate Diversity. "The number has quadrupled in less than five years."
The legislation, which was initially introduced in 2003 but gave companies five years to comply, means that the country has almost double the percentage of female board members even compared with its Nordic neighbours.
"Norway now has close to 38% of women on the board of publicly listed companies," Ms Hoel says.
"The next country is Sweden with close to 20% of board membership female within companies listed on the Stockholm stock exchange."
This is well above a European average, which the European Professional Women's Network puts at around 8% and far more than in Italy, for example, where the figure dips to below 2%.
Can government legislation help get rid of the 'glass ceiling'?
Tough government-enforced measures work far better than softer initiatives from within companies, says Dianne Perrons of the London School of Economics' Gender Institute.
"In general, quotas backed by legislation seem to be one of the most significant ways of effecting change.
"The gender balance strategies of companies alone through flexible working and mentoring and so on seem to have very limited success."
But Dinah Worman, of the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development, argues that playing the numbers game with gender in business will not succeed in altering entrenched corporate culture.
"There are those who argue that if you interfere with the top team, you'll bring more gender perspective - that would be nice if it actually worked but there are issues about the kind of culture that exists," she says.
"Fixing the numbers is fine but if you think that's going to deliver everything, that's naive. We've got to keep being curious about what goes on in what top team."
Competence not chromosomes
Even in Norway not everyone has been delighted by the manner of change. Many of the country's small, non-listed companies have been rapidly altering their status to avoid complying with the new rules, according to the Oslo Stock Exchange.
"We have said from day one that we are against this law," says Sigrun Vageng, an executive director within Norway's Confederation of Enterprise, a grouping of Norwegian firms.
Now four out of 10 Norwegian board members are women
"We recognise that we need more women at boardroom level but we do not think that this was the way to go about it. I feel if you own a company you should be the one to decide who sits on the board.
"We need more women because they offer competence, not because they are women per se."
But far from diluting the quality of leadership and skills by valuing the sex of candidates above the contents of their CV, the calibre of board members has improved, Ms Hoel insists.
Public to private
The number of younger, better educated women with specific experiences gained in the public sector has actually improved the professional status of many boards, she says.
"Norway now has a lot of corporate women and, from a first analysis of their kind of skills, the data shows that the new board members have a higher level of education. So the professional level of many boards has risen significantly."
The scramble for talent has led to the best qualified women taking up multiple directorships, in turn creating a small cadre of very powerful and influential women in Norway's corporate sector.
Yet this hunger for female talent in the private sector is now causing problems for the public sector as women jump ship.
The Norwegian oil and gas giant Aker Kvaerner, for example, has recruited no fewer than four former ministers on to the various boards of its firms.
"In Norway they have tended to go for public sector positions as they believe these will be easier to combine with a family life," Ms Vageng says.
"But now women are moving across to the private sector and it is now a growing problem for the public sector, which is losing women."
Diving for pearls
The search for female executives has led to cross-border recruitment drives - especially in neighbouring Nordic states - as well as company-led initiatives to cherry-pick and promote the best existing female talent.
The Female Future initiative, run by the firms who make up the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise, is a one-and-a-half year training programme of management and networking seminars.
According to research carried out by the London School of Economics' Gender Institute, some 40% of women who took part in the programme were later invited to join a board.
Such initiatives are changing the culture of the boardroom, Ms Vageng says.
"Being on the board used to depend on being a member of the "old boys' network", a club from your university of high-school peers."
Bente Landsnes, the female president of the Oslo Stock Exchange, can see the same pattern of concentration of power being repeated by female board members.
Many are already part of Norway's elite, educated in a small number of top-ranking institutions.
"A few women are taking a number of boards, just like the men have done so before them," she says.
Ms Perrons, of the LSE, says that while the quota level is symbolically important and may actually influence strategic thinking, other gender issues remain.
"It is also important to tackle gender imbalance throughout the organisational hierarchy, in particular the gender-differentiated pay gap or the highly gendered, uneven monetary rewards for different kinds of work," she says.
Ms Landsnes believes that the group of people who put forward board members also needs to change.
"It is important to look at the nomination committees - they propose new board members. They are mainly men and they will appoint men."
Ms Hoel admits that despite Norway being a global pioneer on achieving gender balance at the distant board level the country has too few women actually running companies from the top.
"It has always been difficult to change the power structure in any country and the government can't get involved [in this].
"This is a part of the company that cannot be regulated by law. A [chief executive] has to have the power to recruit whoever into their executive team, you can't legislate for that."
Hear a discussion about the Norwegian law on Radio 4's Woman's Hour at 1000GMT, Friday 18 January or afterwards at the Woman's Hour website.
A selection of your comments:
I work in a small publicly listed company, but I doubt I will ever advance any higher in the company than I am now - the entire managerial level above me is female, and the level above them too. There is no legislation which says there has to be a certain percentage of men present in the board room!
Mike, Oslo, Norway
If not for deep-rooted cultural attitudes, these women probably would have made it to the top of their companies on their own merit. Anti-discrimination legislation is necessary to reverse disparities. Positive discrimination restores the balance and should also be used, in my opinion, in sexual orientation and race equality.
Katherine, London UK
Curiously I saw this news item and I was totally surprised. There is a highly contentious, volatile debate in my home country, India. It is about reservation, which is same as the quota mentioned in this article. The quota is for some underpriveliged castes in education and jobs (public and private). Reservation in education is perfectly valid as there is a history of deprivation for many of them. They have also had quotas in the public sector too. But I thought enforcing it in private sector is unfair as the private sector survives on individual abilities and not on quotas directed by the government.
Giri Velamur, NJ, US (Indian citizen in US)
Laws like this only serve to reinforce the notion that women are incapable of achieving leadership positions in large companies on their own merits. As a woman in the business world, I want to be judged on my abilies and I want to be promoted because I am the best person for the job, not because there is a female quota that needs to be filled. Give me the same opportunity as anyone else -- no more and no less!
Maria, Washington, DC
Great idea! Of course we need to force companies to employ more women. This is a good way to rapidly change business culture, and it can only be good for businesses in the long run.
Mariken Schipper, Cambridge, UK
I think to inshrine this in legislation for an indefinite period is wrong. There should be a sunset clause on this of say 10 years or so to tackle the 'old boys' culture but to have it there forever is just plain discrimination.
Sean Gaughan, Bergen , Norway
There are now several women in board positions without the experience and competancy neccessary for those positions.
Legislation is not the way. Ability should be the reason one is appointed, not one's gender.
DT, Stavanger Norway
Legislation should not be used to improve gender equality in the corporate world. This type of affirmative action always backfires. The women appointed will not be taken seriously because it will be always be wispered that she was given the job...which is true.
Kara Tyson, Mobile, Alabama
So we're expected to believe that giving someone a job based on whether or not they can pee standing up will make companies more successful? What about talent? Who's better in the boardroom; a talented man or a useless woman? In Norway you now have no choice but to take the useless one. Mind you, anything that hurts foreign companies is likely to help ours in the long run, so carry on, Norway.
Alam, Aberdeen, Scotland
Absolutely. Men employ men that they know, or men that they think they know, or have some familiarity or common interest or mindset with - it's the easiest and least risky option when recruiting. Women are an alien species and very difficult to feel in tune with for many men.
Something needs to be done to push these recruiting men into riskier options, such as an unknown woman applicant.
Once the number of women in higher positions reaches a certain number, the problem will most likely disappear.
Nick Pettefar, Swindon, England
I still feel that all that has really been done here is to put a few female players into a male game. The business world has been dominated by men for so long that only after a few generations of equal gender representation in top jobs will people begin to think differently about business, and accept different ways of 'being a board member'.
Mad! This is bad for the makeup of corporate boards and bad for the women who get appointed - they wont be taken seriously no matter how suitable they are for the role - and if they were suitable they would already have been appointed - perhaps if they had given some significant lead time (5 years?) then women could be groomed for these positions, but not overnight!
The reasons for more men being in director positions is a generational thing. The male directors of today perhaps had more opportunities than female 20 years ago when they were in education. This is not the same today and as todays young generation grows into these positions in a few years the gender gap will close.
Graham Montgomerie, Dundee, Scotland
Positive discrimination is still discrimination, and any form of discrimination, however well intentioned, is wrong.
Julian , Leeds,Uk
While there is no doubt that the 'Old Boys' network seriousely limits the inclusion of women in high corpotate positions, it must be remembered that it also excludes 99.99% of men to, based largely on aggresive male competitiveness. It would seem that there is a similar female elite element, or 'Old Girls' network, so there must be plenty of capable women who should be setting up their own corporations and heading them
Duncan, Glenrothes, Fife
A few years ago there were a number of women CEO's in large public companies. There are less now. Why? Because they weren't up to the job.
My experience of living in a country with similar pressure to promote women is that companies willfully promote their least competent, and most docile, female employees. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but you have to admit that it's a clever way of undermining the rules.
The reason almost all positions of power are held by men is because quite simply, mens brains are different from women's. Males are programmed to push forward and be more competitive whereas women are programmed to take care of things. You employ people based on how well they can do the job, and in positions of power the natural choice is almost always a man, for the reasons above.
michael, glasgow, scotland
As a science secondary school teacher in the U.S., I have seen the gender achievement gap first hand. Girls are easily outperforming boys in science and other subjects. We should recognize this change and support the advancement of women at the highest levels. Nations that do otherwise will fall behind.
Tom Ericsson, Beverly, MA in the U.S.A.
I am currently a female engineering apprentice working for a satalite company. I am the only female in my class. This can act as both a blessing and a pain. I sometimes wonder if this job that Im doing is because I was generally good enough to do it, or I was put in it because I am a girl. I know it goes against my position at the moment, but I believe that people who get jobs should deserve to be there, and I would hope that the job should be given to the best person for it, not what was required to fill a certain quota.
Sam G, Portsmouth
I notice that even in Norway, boards contain slightly fewer women than they are forced to by law.
So if I were offered a meeting with a Norwegian female manager, I might be tempted to ask if I could speak with someone who got their position through merit.
Mark Saunders, Bath, England
I support the law. It is interesting that the "old boys' network" is taken for granted, and little or no real discussion has taken place on that matter.
The 'glass ceiling' is not removed overnight, and it is not only a matter for private companies. Women are also soon in majority when it comes to doctorates at university levels, but are a small minority among the professors. But it is a step in the right direction.
Jack Myrseth, Trondheim, Norway