As Europe searches for more ways to achieve gender balance in corporate boardrooms, Norway offers a strikingly simple solution to bring in more women. The problem? A lot of people hate it.
Many Norwegian boards are now 40 percent female
A decade ago, corporate boardrooms in Norway had fewer than seven percent women. Tone Bjornov was not one of them. But after groundbreaking legislation threatened to shut down publicly traded companies that didn't have enough women on their boards, Bjornov made the jump from banking to corporate board work.
"The law helped opened some doors," says Bjornov, now one of Norway's "golden skirts," as the women who make board work a full time career are sometimes known.
"But it's not like the phone started ringing for every woman in Norway once this quota law was introduced," she says. "You still have to do the work yourself."
In Norway, only publicly held companies are subject to the quota law
Norway's quota law was introduced in 2003 by a conservative male parliamentarian, and required public companies listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange to put 40 percent women on their corporate boards - or risk being shut down.
Today, all of Norway's publicly listed companies are in compliance with the law, according to Vibeke Heidenreich, who studies the impacts of the legislation at Oslo's Institute for Social Justice.
Europe takes note
Norway's success in bringing more gender equality to corporate boards has sparked the interest of many European countries. However, they seemed to be divided on whether a quota is really the best way to go.
Spain attempted to follow Norway's lead in 2007, passing non-binding legislation that gives companies until 2015 to reach 40 percent women on their corporate boards. There are no sanctions, but companies that do comply will receive preference in the awarding of government contracts.
Women make up just three percent of executive boards at Germany's top companies
In January, France went the quota route, passing a law forcing large companies to reserve at least 40 percent of their boardroom positions for women within six years.
Germany, so far, has been reluctant to institute a quota for women - perhaps a bit ironically, given that Chancellor Angela Merkel is one the most powerful women in Europe, as well a product of the former communist East Germany, where gender equality was more widespread.
"We hoped that when the female chancellor started her job, it would change the sphere for some females in business," says Monika Schulz-Strelow, president of FIDAR, a German initiative dedicated to putting more women on corporate boards.
"We have to say, she's been great for women in politics, but there has been no influence in business," Schulz-Strelow says.
Earlier in the year, Secretary of Labor Ursula van der Leyen caused a small uproar within her own conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) when she came out in support of a quota for women. But her female colleagues in the CDU, Family Minister Kristina Schröder and Chancellor Merkel, have both spoken out against introducing mandatory quotas.
"I think quota still has a very negative stigma," says Schulz-Strelow.
The most powerful women in Germany are divided on the issue of quotas
Norway's quota law, too, was highly controversial at the time it was introduced, says Vibeke Heidenreich of Oslo's Institute for Social Research.
"It was like the smoking ban. At first, people were outraged, 'why do we need this?' But now, it's accepted as the way things are."
But Schulz-Strelow says that Germany has more traditional attitudes toward women in the workplace
"I don't think you can compare Germany with Norway. Norway has a tradition of accepting women in business, has a tradition that men and women both take care of their kids, they go home at night."
Schultz says she doesn't foresee Germany introducing a quota for women anytime soon. However, German women may not have to wait for their own government to come around to the idea. Last week the European Commission began debating quotas for women, after European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding and European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek said in March that quotas should be imposed as a last resort if companies fail to reform their boardrooms.
Author: Sarah Harman, Oslo
Editor: Michael Lawton