Norway is not unaccustomed to being a trail-blazer when it comes to gender equality. It was ranked first in the world for its gender gap index, and has legislation implemented to encourage gender equality that most countries haven’t even attempted yet. Norway, all in all, is pretty much the closest we have to a feminist haven.
Yet Trond Giske, the Trade and Industry minister, doesn’t think it goes far enough. After a law in 2006 required 40 per cent of boardroom seats to go to women (or men, in female dominated boardrooms), Norway has been ahead in acquiring an equal distribution of candidates in the top companies. Compared to the whole of Europe, which as of March 2012 had around 13.7 per cent of women in boardrooms, and Britain, where only 15.6 per cent of FTSE 100 board directorships are held by women, Norway is very clearly already ahead of the game. However, according to Giske, the process to incentivise more women into the boardroom “is going much too slowly”.
The use of quotas to destabilise the masculine dominated areas of industries and companies is a great technique, and one not to be dismissed for being ‘patronising’ or ‘unfair’. They are often misconstrued in their purpose, and as a consequence, underestimated in their power to smash the glass ceiling. Mai-Lill Ibsen, a woman who at one point held 185 boardroom seats rejected the idea of quotas as “they are discriminatory in a way. I feel we [women] are so strong we don’t need that.”
Ibsen is indeed right when she says women are strong, but completely misses the point of quotas when she calls them ‘discriminatory’. The problem with getting women into boardrooms is not that there aren’t enough good, fully qualified, intelligent women to get there, it’s that they don’t apply. Without being able to perceive your ability to achieve, say, a place on a top film, there’s little chance you’ll aspire to acquire that place. Women don’t want to go into a company that have no other women in it, and definitely don’t want to go into one with a culture that works largely to detriment women. In 2012, Forbes surveyed 600 heads of Human Resources in the world’s largest employers in 20 countries. They found that the most prevalent barriers to women entering into leadership positions, far ahead of flexible work and work-life balance policies, were “general norms and cultural practices in my country” and “masculine/patriarchal corporate culture”. Quotas allow these things to change, as well as resulting in a more meritocratic, fairer system.
Norway is nowhere near perfect when it comes to gender equality in the boardroom. Let us not forget that approximately 40 per cent, whilst ahead of most other countries in the world, is still a minority. Furthermore, whilst Norway has around 40 per cent female non-executive directors, only two per cent of its chief executive officers – who have the real sway – are women. Businesses were also found to avoid the new quota law by converting into private limited companies. Two-thirds of them admitted the quota rules were behind their decision to delist from the stock exchange.
Considering all these things, it’s clear that reticence and sexism when it comes to women in boardrooms is not totally eradicated. The insulting, gendered, dated, 1950s esq term of ‘golden skirts’ given to those women who achieve in the workplace just shows how much more there is to be done. Giske is right to be encouraging the pace of gender equality, and not just becoming complacent with the success of Norway’s quota system. After all, although the system is great for women, it’s also great for companies – expanding your employment pool to 50% of the population can only be beneficial. Indeed, Norwegian agricultural co-operatives voluntarily adopted the 40% rule, as a way to improve business. This is clearly “an industry goal [and] not just a gender issue,” Giske said speaking in 2010, and one that should be seen to benefit not just women.
For companies, as well as women, Giske’s incentive to speed up the progress of the quota system is another good idea for Norway. Getting more women in boardrooms not only sets a great example to other European countries, but also improves the companies for everyone. Keep up the good work, Norway.
By Ruby Lott-Lavigna
Written March 2013 for The Foreigner, a Norwegian online newspaper written in English