OSLO (AFP) — Norwegian women have knocked down the door to the corporate world and taken their seats in the boardroom thanks to a pioneering new law, but despite the giant step forward they remain under-represented in the business sector.
From the industrial fishing group Aker Seafoods to the StatoilHydro energy mammoth, women account for about 35 percent of board membership at Norwegian public limited companies, the highest proportion in the world.
For the companies, it was a question of survival.
Norwegian legislation requires public limited companies to have at least 40 percent women on their boards as of January 1, 2008 or close their doors to business.
The 40 percent figure can vary a bit depending on the total number of board members.
"This reform is a success. The most alarmist people told us the economy would suffer, that investors would flee Oslo, that the level of competence on the boards would plunge," said Marit Hoel, the head of Norway's Centre for Corporate Diversity (CCD).
"What we've seen is that the economy is doing very well, that the investors are still there, and that the women who have been appointed to the boards are more highly educated, more international and younger than their male counterparts, which creates a new dynamic," she said.
The law -- the brainchild of the previous centre-right government in 2003, at a time when women represented only 15.5 percent of board members -- initially met with strong opposition.
Employers in particular feared that gender would take priority over merit.
But the law has become an unquestionable part of Norwegian mores, and not one of Norway's companies appears to be at risk of closure for non-compliance.
"The goal of the law was not to dismantle companies," Equality Minister Manuela Ramin-Osmundsen said.
"The goal was to have women in the boardroom and we're there."
The Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO) has even launched a programme, called Female Future, which has already trained almost 600 future leaders so far.
Ingrid Amundsen, a marketing manager at Kraft Foods, is one of them. At 37, she has already been appointed to two boards.
"If a company offers me a seat on its board, it shouldn't only be because I'm a woman but also because the company thinks I can bring something to the table. It is totally out of the question for me to become a board member just because of my chromosomes," she said.
Alongside the new recruits, some of the women already well-established in the business sector have become even more sought after. Dubbed the "queens" of the boards, a number of them, including a few former cabinet ministers, are piling up board positions, with some holding up to 20.
But while Norway can now boast twice as many women on company boards as in Sweden and four times more than in Denmark, not everything is looking so rosy.
Women hold only 15 percent of executive management positions, and only four percent of board chairs are held by women -- statistics that put Norway back in the European average.
In addition, the Norwegian labour market remains very segmented, with the prestigious and well-paid jobs held overwhelmingly by men and the low-paid public sector jobs held primarily by women.
"It takes the same number of years of education to become a nurse as it does to become an engineer, and yet, the two professions are not at all considered equal," said Bjoerg Unstad, the acting equal opportunities ombudswoman.
"In short, we need more men in the public sector and more women in the private sector," she said.
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