Photo: Norwegian Embassy.Photo: Norwegian Embassy

UK Interest in Norwegian Quota Act

Labour MP Dame Joan Ruddock recently hosted a conference in the House of Commons on the topic of the Norwegian quota act which states that at least 40 per cent of board members in limited companies must be of either sex. Around 70 participants from Parliament and other parts of public and private life met five Norwegian experts outlining different aspects of the law.

The so-called “Women on Boards Act” took effect in Norway in 2006. Even though this was highly unpopular in many parts of the business community to begin with, most are happy with the results. Today, over 40 per cent of Norwegian board members are women. The Norwegian quota law has been described as a snowball that soon started rolling southwards. The debate arrived in the UK following a report in 2011 by former trade and industry minister Lord Davies, which recommended businesses should aim for a minimum of 25 per cent female board members by 2015. A recent EU proposal to move towards a gender quota of 40 per cent on boards has made the debate even more topical.  

At the conference, the five invited guests from Norway presented their views on the law and its effects. While some were in favour of the quota act, others opposed it. Ms Agnes Bolsø, sociologist and gender expert, took the audience through the history of the law and presented quotes and predictions from when the Act came about, which today mostly provokes laughter. The successful entrepreneur Ms Elin Hurvenes told the audience how the draft legislation sent shock waves through the Norwegian business community. Some felt attacked by what they regarded merely as a symbolic act. Some CEOs proclaimed that they had no idea where on earth qualified women could be found. In response to this, Ms Hurvenes set up the Professional Boards Forum where she brought together leading chairmen and investors and women ready and capable of taking on roles as non-executive directors. In the end, the CEOs did in fact find the women. Up from 6 per cent in 2002, the number of women on Norwegian boards has stabilised at an encouraging 40 per cent without any problems in recent years.

Some claim that the so-called “golden skirts” -  women with an excessive number of board seats -  prove that the law creates a false sense of diversity. One of the Norwegian conference guests, the banker and CEO Ms Mai-Lill Ibsen was regarded as “The queen of golden skirts” due to the fact that she at one point held 185 board seats. However, she explained the number by pointing to the fact that most of the seats came as a result of one single position in a big charitable umbrella organisation.

Company profits also came under scrutiny following the new legislation. Claims that profits were down were attributed to the perceived fact that although the new board members were qualified, they were also inexperienced. Professor and researcher Mr Morten Huse showed the audience how blaming the gender of the board members for a company’s results, especially in the midst of an economic crisis, does not hold up. Mr Arne Selvik, communications director, argued that having women on the board does not necessarily make the board better, but it might make the men on the board better. Still, as Mr Selvik noted: “Women will not be fully accepted in the board room until their male colleagues laugh as much at their jokes as they do at the men’s jokes”, adding that this culture might take some years to catch up.

However, this time lap is nothing compared to how long it would have taken to achieve board room diversity without a change in the law. In Norway, estimates show that a century might have gone by before gender equality would be accomplished on a voluntary basis. And as Ms Hurvenes  told the audience; “If you ask any Norwegian CEO, he will say that he is against the law, but will be quick to add that he is happy with the result. When asked if he would want his company to go back to having 6 per cent women in the board room, the reply is Not in a 100 years”!

You can read more about the Norwegian law here: Getting-Women-on-Board/

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