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Does Norway know best?

It’s nearly 10 years since the country legislated to get more women into the boardroom. Pippa Crerar looks at the effects of introducing a quota.

‘There was lots of debate and people asking how is that going to work, but now we can barely remember it being any different’

31 August 2012

When Elisabeth Grieg, one of Norway’s most powerful business-women, stood up to address 150 of her male peers in 2002, she took many by surprise.
The formidable blonde shipping magnate was at a conference that had just been told the government was bringing in a 40 per cent quota for women on company
boards. The ultimate sanction for failing to comply within two years was to be effectively shut down.

One attendee described how there was a collective intake of breath as the executives realised that what was previously talked of only as an aspiration had suddenly become a very hard reality. “There were predictions that the Norwegian economy would slump, international companies would all leave the Oslo stock exchange and that it would harm the whole national economy. This was from men and women equally,” says Marit Hoel of Norway’s Centre for Corporate Diversity.

But Grieg, then in her early forties, stood up. “When I came into the room I was absolutely determined I was against this idea of quotas,” she told them. “But after listening to this discussion and how people talked about women as business people, suggesting they are somehow incompetent, I changed my mind.”

Ten years on, she is not the only one. The controversial policy has now been in place for nearly 10 years and the numbers speak for themselves: in 2003, 7.3 per cent of board members were women; by 2006 that had risen to 21 per cent and today is nearly half. The latest figure for the UK is just 10.9 per cent.

The quota’s fiercest critics have been converted and even those who still remain against it in principle — many of them women — concede the pace of change would not have been so fast without it.

Even David Cameron is interested. At a Nordic summit in February he praised the Norwegian measure and suggested he wouldn’t rule out quotas to get more women onto Britain’s boards. Research quoted by the UK government has shown that strong stock market growth is most likely to occur where there is a higher proportion of women in senior management teams, while companies with more women on their boards were found to outperform their rivals with a 42 per cent higher return in sales, 66 per cent on invested capital and 53 per cent on equity.

However, even in Norway, a country used to gender quotas throughout public life, there were powerful arguments against introducing it. Many felt the state should not interfere with the internal workings of companies, while there were concerns it would hit the value of Norwegian firms, with some even quitting the country.

But the then trade minister Ansgar Gabrielsen was convinced. As a traditional conservative he was an unlikely champion. But he had years of business experience and believed more diversity on boards would mean better performance.

“The law was not about getting equality between the sexes; it was about the fact that diversity is a value in itself, that it creates wealth,” he told his detractors. “From my time in the business world, I saw how board members were picked: they come from the same small circle of people. They go hunting and fishing together, they are buddies. I believe in the opposite. It is important that people think their own, different thoughts, and get to say what is needed, not what is wanted. I wanted to break up the alpha male club.” The business case was key to Gabrielsen winning the argument.

In his luxurious lakeside office Leiv Askvig, the urbane chair of the Oslo stock exchange, admits he was initially against the idea. “My first reaction was that it would be difficult to find enough qualified women. But we had to adapt. Everybody had to do it. Now it is not an issue. You know the people, you know where to look.

“Yes, it was quite unpopular, but from an economic point of view it now seems to me pretty stupid not to make the most of all the talent you have.”

Silvija Seres, 42, a former Microsoft executive who juggles five major board positions with three small children, goes further. “It’s not just about companies being more financially successful, it’s also about survival. They have to dare to be challenged from the inside to adapt quicker. If you try to close your eyes and do business as usual, that’s an extremely dangerous thing. Diversity revives the boards and gives them more of an open-minded atmosphere.”

Tone Bjornov, a 50-year-old financier who sits on the board of investment bank ABG, concurs: “It’s much better to make the economic case than the equality case. It’s not just about being fair. We would all be happier if they didn’t have to impose this by law, but in hindsight it would have taken a hundred years without the quota.”

Marit Hoel agrees it was unhelpful to focus the debate on gender. “This has been a tremendous economic success. Why? Because the whole Scandinavian model relies on the fact that we use women’s productive forces.”

The human capital argument works in Norway. About 80 per cent of women work, childcare is of the highest quality — and affordable — and shared parental leave and flexible working are something British parents can only dream of.

Between them, parents can get 47 weeks leave on full pay — up to £53,400 a year — or 57 weeks on 80 per cent, the cost split between the company and government.

Fathers are entitled to three months, but if the entitlement isn’t used, the family will miss out. There is 90 per cent take-up. This, more than anything, has levelled the playing field between men and women in one fell swoop.

Politicians lead by example. Audun Lysbakken, the Minister for Children, Equality and Gender, recently took four months’ paid parental leave to look after his young daughter. But there are still some women who remain opposed to the idea. “I was against quotas in principle so I was against this law,” says Mai Ibsen, 57, a banker who headed up Citigroup in Norway and now holds several board positions.

“But I was definitely in favour of more women in the boardrooms. Whatever your
opinion, it has had an impressive result because the process has moved forward very quickly.”

She is convinced that all board members are pulling equal weight: “Women can’t be there on sufferance or because someone quota-ed them in. In general they must have both competence and confidence.”

The label “golden skirts”, which was attached to those women who benefited from the quota and hold multiple directorships, is now dismissed by most business people. “If there are any golden skirts then they’re more than matched by golden suits,” says Elin Hurvenes, founder of the Professional Boards Forum, which helps women onto boards.

But even Norway has a long way to go. The trickle-down to senior management level has not yet happened. Just four per cent of the leading executive positions of the top 100 listed Norwegian companies are held by women.

And at first glance, 280 of the 640 companies listed on the Oslo stock exchange have left it since quotas were introduced.

The figures, experts insist, are misleading as 100 small companies which had previously been forced onto the stock exchange went private, while almost 200 more which had begun the listing process rethought as a result of the financial crisis. The focus in Norway has now turned to the 150,000 privately owned enterprises.

Askvig believes the legislation was necessary. “To get that spark, that bang, you had to sort of push people into it,” he says.

Bjornov says there is no going back. “It’s been a bit like the smoking ban. There was lots of debate and people asking how is that going to work, but now we can barely remember it being any different.”

Grieg, a trailblazer who has brought in quotas in her own company even though she is under no legal obligation, has some advice for David Cameron.

“It’s something which has proven to work but it’s important to focus on the economic rather than the gender argument. Then it’s easier to get companies to see it not as something they have to do but as something they want to do. It gives them an added dimension.”