Gender equality: Women on top

Annual meeting of the European Professional Women's Network, Nice, France, 2009. (EPWN)
Annual meeting of the European Professional Women's Network, Nice, France, 2009. (EPWN)
International New York Times (Paris)

Eight years after the Norwegian government passed a law requring that 40% of all company board members be women, Nicola Clark of the International Herald Tribune looks at the drive for corporate gender equality in other European countries, where governements are considering similar laws.

Arni Hole remembers the shock wave that went through Norway’s business community in 2002 when the country’s trade and industry minister, Ansgar Gabrielsen, proposed a law requiring that 40 percent of all company board members be women. “There were, literally, screams,” said Ms. Hole, director general of the Equality Ministry. “It was a real shock treatment.” Even in this staunchly egalitarian society — 80 percent of Norwegian women work outside the home, and half the current government’s ministers are female — the idea seemed radical, if not for its goal, then for the sheer magnitude of change it would require. Back then, Norwegian women held less than 7 percent of private-sector board seats; just under 5 percent of chief executives were women. After months of heated debate, the measure was approved by a significant majority in Parliament, giving state-owned companies until 2006 to comply and publicly listed companies until 2008.

Many prominent business leaders dismissed the 2003 law as a political stunt and argued that Norway, with just 4.8 million people, did not have enough experienced women to meet the quota. One chief executive of a software company told the business newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv that companies would have to recruit “escort girls” to meet the target. Nearly eight years on, the share of female directors at the roughly 400 companies affected is above 40 percent, while women fill more than a quarter of the board seats at the 65 largest privately held companies. To many feminists, this is the boldest move anywhere to breach one of the most durable barriers to gender equality. Indeed, the world has noticed: Spain and the Netherlands have passed similar laws, with a 2015 deadline for compliance. The French Senate will soon debate a bill phasing in a female quota by 2016, after the National Assembly approved the measure last week. Belgium, Britain, Germany and Sweden are considering legislation. Read full article in International Herald Tribune...

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