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A Norwegian Perspective

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The issue of women in the boardroom is causing controversy in the UK. Lord Davies published his second progress report looking at the numbers of women on boards.

The overall results are positive; as of March 1st women accounted for 17.3 per cent of all directors at FTSE100 companies, up from 10.5 per cent in 2010.

While this continued growth is good news, the Cranfield School of Management, paints a slightly different picture. In the second half of last year only 26 per cent of FTSE100 and 29 per cent of FTSE250 board appointments went to women. This is considerably less than the first half of last year when 44 per cent of FTSE100 and 36 per cent of FTSE250 appointments were women. Business Secretary Vince Cable has reminded the business community that compulsory quotas set by the government are a real possibility if the 25 per cent target is not met by 2015, so should there be a minimum percentage set by law?

Here's where the experience of foreign countries can help. In Norway, which introduced legal quotas of 40 per cent of women on boards of large publicly listed companies in 2008, women's representation rose from 7 per cent in 2003 to over 42 per cent in 2011.

everywomanClub member Heidi Dahl hails from Norway but has worked in the UK since 1986. Currently Regional Director, Innovation Norway, Western Europe, she says the question of women on boards cannot be answered simply by setting legal quotas.

"When it comes to quotas, I think what works for one country may not work in another." says Dahl.

She explains that Norway only has a population of about five million, and 60 per cent of people going  into higher education are women. "Against that background the country simply cannot afford for women not to work - and to ensure women are motivated to work to the highest levels it is imperative that they are represented on the boards of big organisations."

Women's contribution to the Norwegian economy is so important that the country's prime minister said last year that women's work was worth more to the economy than its oil reserves. "Looked at from that standpoint it's important that women are represented at all levels of our economy," says Dahl. "Anyway, given the education level of most women in Norway, having many of them unemployed would be a waste of resources and a waste of educational investment."

But the situation is not the same in the UK, she points out. Norway has better levels of maternity and paternity leave than the UK and each child is guaranteed a heavily subsidised nursery place from the age of one, so it is easier for Norwegian women with children to combine work and motherhood than it for mothers in the UK, where nursery fees are expensive.

Norway is acknowledged to be a more egalitarian society than the UK, and, Dahl says, has a far more limited 'old boys' network', but the quota system was still required. "We tried asking companies to appoint more female board members for a long time without introducing quotas, but progress was going very slowly." says Dahl.

Even now the 40 per cent quota only applies to listed companies and public services organisations. There are no quotas for unlisted limited companies, where women's board representation is about 17 per cent.

One of the problems in the UK is that there are too few women in the boardroom pipeline. Have quotas helped solve that problem in Norway?

"I think they have," says Dahl, "but quotas are not the complete answer to increasing women's participation in the work force."

She points out that the country is still facing a challenge getting women into sectors that are traditionally male. "It starts at school and university. Women are more commonly found studying traditionally 'female' courses such as teaching, nursing and medicine. The challenge is to get more into science, technology and engineering, where men are still in the majority. Until you get more women at higher levels in companies in those sectors there will inevitably be a shortage of women on those boards."

This is especially important in a country where oil and gas and the maritime sector are major drivers of the economy, she points out.

One of the ways that Norway has helped encourage women - and men - to aim for board-level jobs is to offer boardroom training courses. Innovation Norway designed the courses, which prepare people with managerial experience for what they can expect as a board member and train them in the required skills.

Those who successfully complete the course get a Board Candidate qualification and are entitled to list their details on a state-run website which organisations can use to source new board members.

"It gives women a qualification that makes them more confident that they are not just being appointed to a board as a token woman. It has been one way of addressing the problem of too few women in the boardroom pipeline," says Dahl  "other countries, including the UK, could learn from this."

One of the most important drivers of change has been research showing that companies with women on the board do better. "Danish research into board diversity shows that companies with gender-diverse boards are 110 per cent more innovative" says Dahl. "When you can convince companies that there's a measurable financial benefit from having women on boards companies will appoint them without the need for quotas."

And finally, she says, there is the fun factor. "You don't often hear people saying that business is fun, but it is. If you want more women in business, you have to convince them that it’s fun."