Women’s Quotas – the Norwegian Experience


On November 19th Nicola Sturgeon became Scotland’s first female First Minister and duly appointed a gender equal Cabinet. The public reaction to her decision was generally positive, if a little Indifferent. The UN applauded Ms. Sturgeon’s Cabinet as a ‘role model to emulate’.

The First Minister’s symbolic gesture, coupled with wide-spread political engagement during the referendum campaign has fostered some hope that Scottish politics is becoming a more inclusive and diverse business; and there is a sense that now is the time to forge ahead with hard measures to promote equality in Scottish society.

Quotas as a means of achieving gender equality in public life – whether in politics, on company boards, or the boards of public bodies (organisations which receive at least half of their funding from government) – have long been lauded by feminist academics as a good idea. The Scottish Government intends to legislate for the latter– if the necessary powers can be wrestled from Westminster.

But what do we hope to achieve with these measures – after all, women’s membership on public boards in Scotland already stands at around 36 per cent – the Government’s proposals would legislate for a minimum of 40 per cent.

In 2002, Norway became a world leader with the introduction of a ‘Quota Law’ requiring publically listed companies (PLCs) to appoint a minimum of 40 per cent of each gender to their boards or face dissolution. Legislation now being proposed by the Scottish Government has been in place since the 1980s in Norway. The Law affecting companies came Into force in 2006, and Since then the numbers of women on PLC boards has risen from 10% to 40%.  Spain, Italy, Belgium, France, Iceland and the Netherlands have since followed suit and the European Parliament has backed mandatory 40 per cent quotas by 2020.

On Tuesday evening, Nordic Horizons hosted speakers Arne Selvik and Mai – Lill Ibsen; both veterans of business and corporate governance, to share their thoughts on the Norwegian experience.

Perhaps wary of our occasionally starry-eyed view of all things Nordic, both speakers took a slightly nuanced approach.

Arne Selvik –  a former executive trainer at the Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen – began by warning against trying to transplant the Norwegian model onto Scotland, and emphasised that there is more to board diversity than gender.

However, he stated: “quotas have created opportunities for ambitious Norwegian women”.

He cited a growing body of research indicating that board diversity can lead to better decision-making.  The ‘biology of financial risk taking’ suggests that women are less hormonally reactive than men to making and losing money.

Mr Selvik hypothesised that prior to the implementation of quotas, a ‘Sticky floor’, rather than glass ceiling contributed towards creating gender disparity.  Without encouragement, women hesitated to apply for board and top management positions.  Quotas have gone some way to combating this and have had a generally positive effect on the aspirations of Norwegian women.  There has been a steady growth in female participation and more women now seek jobs in top management.

But just how far do women want to go? Mai –Lil Ibsen, a business woman with more than 20 years of top-level management experience in financial institutions; suggests that despite increased mentoring initiatives – and a good framework for dual career couples such as generous parental leave and child care facilities – fewer women want to move into top management. Several explanations were offered. In Norway, directorships are low paid and demanding. Board members work extremely long hours for fewer benefits. Perhaps women are simply smarter and don’t want to become tied into corporate life for what they perceive to be insufficient remuneration.

For some reason, be it glass ceiling, sticky floor – or rational decision – women are still opting out to a greater degree than men.

According to Ms Ibsen; “If your only objective is gender equality in the board room then quotas will achieve that”, however don’t bargain on this having a significant knock on effect, was her message.

The Norwegian example challenges the belief that simply placing women in positions of power will rectify gender discrimination in the work place, and has shown the assumption that women will automatically hire and promote other women, to be wishful thinking.

Ms Ibsen also stressed the need for certain pre-existing conditions for quotas to work; such as high female participation in the work force, a history of corporate democracy law and a supportive media.

It seems that despite the widespread introduction of quotas, Norway still has a way to go.

More women in the board room has so far not resulted in a dramatic increase of women taking up top management positions. Women remain a minority of top executives and are seldom promoted to chair company boards. Women still tend to choose stereotypical female professions and many have part-time jobs.

Few women are shareholders, as Ms Ibsen puts it – “the Oslo Stock Exchange could still be mistaken for a gentleman’s club and this says something about who holds economic power at a national level”.

But, while Mai – Lill Ibsen’s warning is absolutely valid, neither does this seem like a good enough argument to abandon the principle of quotas.

The Norwegian experience has proven that quotas are neither un-democratic, discriminatory, nor do they create ‘token women’ who are unqualified for the positions they fill. Women promoted to boards in Norway are highly educated and capable as a demographic, many also have years of corporate experience.

The bottom line is that without quotas, it would take decades to reach the level of gender parity Norway now has in the board room.

Here in Scotland, and the UK, we have a lot of ground to make up before we reach Norwegian levels of gender equality in a variety of arenas. 20.7 per cent of women sit on company boards in the UK compared to Norway’s 40.5 per cent. Women constitute 23 per cent of MPs, 35 per cent of MSPs and 33 per cent of local councillors. The Norwegian parliament has 40 per cent female representation.

In Scotland, we are moving backwards in terms of political representation.  The first elections to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 saw women take 37.2 per cent of seats. This did not happen by accident, it was the result of Scottish Labour’s gender quotas, which a coalition of women’s groups fought long and hard for.

Mai-Lill Ibsen’s warning to guard against becoming blinkered to the deep-rooted causes of gender inequality in our society by focussing on headline figures is of course well worth heeding.

There is no silver bullet to tackling sexism and gender inequality, a fact which has long been apparent to feminist academics and activists. Any legislative measures must be supported by educational initiatives and wide-spread efforts to tackle the various causes of gendered discrimination and violence.

However, based on Norway’s example, no disadvantage to the introduction of quotas is apparent.

The endorsement of quotas – and by default the notion that women are as deserving and capable as men – has a normalising effect which might in the long-term play a role in bringing about substantive change.

Comments (4)

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  1. Brian Fleming says:

    If quotas produce a parliament full of Johann Lamonts, forget it. But then, if a lack of quotas would give us more Duncan McNeill’s, bring on the quotas please!

    1. Brian Fleming says:

      McNeills without the apostrophe. In too much of a hurry here.

  2. Brian Powell says:

    Norway isn’t a good comparison. In 1905 when Norway became independent the vote for Yes from men was nearly 100%, and although the women didn’t have the vote, they produced a private one themselves that showed the same level of demand for Independence.
    Here we had a huge resistance and hankering for dependence among women, eventually there was a change but the vote was still dependence.
    Saying Norway does it so we should get it is a weak argument. They are different material, their motives come from a strong ‘within’, not just I want it because they’ve got it.

  3. gonzalo1 says:

    Eh…there are some mediocre wimmin as well! Who cares what gender they are, it is irrelevant.Thatcher was a woman

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