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 Thursday, 8 August, 2002, 07:47 GMT 08:47 UK
Norway to rule on board room girl power
Woman in Oslo
Will headhunters begin to chase women for top positions?

As part of a weekly series on women in business, BBC News Online examines controversial plans to increase the number of women on Norwegian company boards.
Norway's corporate elite is up in arms over plans to force the appointment of more women to companies' boards of directors.

Children and Family Affairs Minister Laila Daavoey
Laila Daavoey: Women have rights
A proposal to compel both state owned and listed private companies to appoint women to at least 40% of boardroom places could become law by 2005.

The move should help companies utilise women's competence and, as such, should boost their profits, the country's Children and Family Affairs Minister Laila Daavoey told BBC News Online.

But, given that the ultimate result would be to unseat many of Norway's leading directors, the proposal has been widely received as a head-on attack on the country's business establishment.

The Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry, NHO, sees the proposal as an onslaught on the basic principle for shareholder democracy - namely that the owners of a company should be free to elect its board.

True reflection

Ms Daavoey is not deterred by such opposition, insisting that the current 7.3% female representation on companies' boards is far too low.

Kirsti Kierulf, The Womens University
Kirsti Kierulf: Men don't see the women
"We need greater diversity on the boards," she said, insisting that unless quotas are introduced it would take several decades before women would be properly represented.

The proposed law would come into effect in three years unless Norwegian companies have already appointed women to 40% of their boards' seats.

"Women should have the right to participate in this part of business too," said Ms Daavoey.

She wants to unseat the "core" of men who have for years been "unwilling" to give up their positions of power.

"Many of them are lawyers or economists" whose somewhat blinkered views often fail to "reflect the diversity of society at large", Ms Daavoey insisted.

"Given that the companies themselves don't see that it would be better to have more women on their boards, we will have to help them a bit," Ms Daavoey said.

Hege Sjo, Oslo Stock Exchange
Hege Sjo: Trust market forces
Kirsti Kierulf, director of The Womens University, agreed.

"There are a lot of beautiful, well educated and experienced women who are more than capable and more than willing to take that responsibility," Ms Kierulf said.

"The community and the boards and the voting committees to the boards do not see them because men are not used to see women in that perspective."

Detrimental to women

The world of business is not convinced.

The Oslo Stock Exchange, which would be left with the burden of making sure companies obey a new law, has rallied against the proposal.

Anita Krohn Thrane
Anita Krohn Thrane: Tokenism not the answer
"In principle, the exchange is opposed to any rules which hinder the efficient workings of the market," market director Hege Sjo, a prominent business woman in her own right, said.

"Our view is that if investors want a greater proportion of women, then it will happen by itself."

"Gender quotas are the wrong tools," added NHO legal director Ingebjoerg Harto.

"They result in women not being appreciated for their skills."

Already there

The voices of the business establishment have gained support from young, high-flying females who have already climbed to great heights without receiving a leg-up from the state.

My personal [opinion] is that if you can find a board of directors which also has a good balance between men and women, that adds to the quality of the board

Olav Fjell, Statoil
"It's the government's role to put it on the agenda, especially in companies where the state has ownership," 30-year-old Anita Krohn Thrane, director of global strategy at the risk management firm Det Norske Veritas' software arm, said.

"But imposing a new law? I would not be comfortable if I knew that I was quoted into a boardroom just because I was a woman.

"There's a generation gap in Norway. In my generation we hardly ever talk about gender issues," Ms Thrane said, describing the debate as "narrow" and insisting that issues such as age and background should also be taken into account.

Already happening

But while the opposition to the government's move is highly vocal, it is far from universal, Ms Daavoey said.

"Many companies in Norway believe this is exciting and are working actively with this," she said.

"Many agree that this is the right way to go."

Among the corporate giants taking a lead is Statoil, the oil giant floated on the stock market last summer.

Last month, Statoil appointed three women to its board - though one of them has since stepped down for personal reasons and is due to be replaced.

Chief executive Olav Fjell insisted that the women were not appointed merely due to their gender.

"From the company's point of view it is important that we get as good a board as possible," Mr Fjell said.

"We should have people with different backgrounds to make sure that we have a diversity so that any issue or any decision can be looked at from different perspectives.

"If you can find a board of directors which also has a good balance between men and women, that adds to the quality of the board."

  The BBC's Angela Garvey
"The girls are encouraged to play the boys at their own game"

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See also:

24 Jul 02 | Europe
28 May 02 | Europe
17 Jun 02 | Country profiles
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