During the research for our book ‘Man-Made’ about women and power in Britain (see the autumn 2013 edition of Fabiana) John Edmonds and I kept hearing disparaging remarks about the 40 per cent Quota Law in Norway.
But despite its controversy, the Quota Law is even- handed: company boards must contain at least 40 per cent women and 40 per cent men.
At a recent conference on the subject in the House of Commons, Agnes Bolso, Professor at Trondheim University, explained that although the idea of a quota law was originally promoted in left wing circles, it was Ansgar Gabrielsen, a Conservative Party Minister of Trade and Industry, who pushed through the law in 2003. ‘Competence’ and ‘diversity’ became , as Agnes put it, buzz words in the heated debate surrounding the proposed legislation but Gabrielsen was more forthright: he was tired, he said, of the ‘boys’ clubs’ refusing women a place on company boards.
As Agnes explained, that the quota law was passed quietly in Norway is a myth. The opposition was fierce and sometimes sexist to say the least. One chief executive even asked: “Where could we find these women? Will we find them on a website as another escort service?”(sic) But when the Quota Law was finally implemented in 2008, many former opponents quickly became supporters.
Arne Selvick from The Norwegian School of Economics contended that with women on boards, “the testosterone level naturally goes down” and men behave better. Women also challenge the male ‘group think’’. Waspishly, Arne estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 70 years for Britain to reach gender parity on boards. But, he added: “Britain is a patient nation!”
After the initial grumble the Norwegian business community took the legislation in its stride. As Rachel Reeves occasionally reminds us, she was herself selected from an all woman short list and now no-one remembers this at all. She is respected for her achievements in office.
However, Mai-Lill Ibsen, who has experience of sitting on many boards, has express reservations about the 40 per cent law. She would have liked to see it implemented in stages and she warns new women board members: “You get a seat at the table but whether you will be heard is up to you…. The use of quotas cannot ensure equal impact.”
Morten Huse, Professor at the Business School in Oslo, made the point that increasing the number of women on boards is “best for society and increases justice, democracy, participation, and general welfare in society”. Indeed he goes so far as to say that he would not have supported the law for the business case alone. That should be music to the ear of Fabians everywhere.
All in all, initial fears of ‘tokenism’ have been utterly dissipated by the calibre of the women directors who now sit on boards in Norway. As Morten says, “the snowball is growing”. And with countries across the world following Norway’s example, who could disagree?
The upcoming report ‘Man Made’ by Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds analyses why so few women hold positions of power in Britain. The book is based on interviews with over a hundred successful women in Britain – many of them well known and household names.