Fast Company

Norway’s Boards: Two Years Later, What Difference Do Women Make?

Two years after the law requiring gender equity on boards took effect for companies on the oslo Exchange, what is the real reaction in board rooms?

A number of Norwegian board members and chairs, many with CEO experience, agreed to meet with me one-on-one in Oslo last month to give their unvarnished "so-what" on the legislation two years later.

These folks included, among others: Svein Renemo, current Chairman of the Board of Statoil Hydro; Jannik Lindbaek, Ex-Chairman of Statoil Hydro; Elisabeth Grieg, President of the Norwegian Shipping Association; Barbara Thoralfsson of Fleming Invest and former CEO of Netcom, a major telecomm company; Ole Jacob Sunde, chairman of Schibsted, Norway's largest media house; Leiv Askvig, Chairman of Board of the Oslo Stock Exchange.

The ratio of the interviews was 50 percent men and 50 percent women, a fair reflection of the strived-for ratio on boards. The women I interviewed had all had been on boards before the legislation, not as a result of it--and many had opposed it. The central questions, of course, are: Was it worth it? What difference, if any, do women make--positive or negative? Would you recommend that other boards elsewhere intentionally boost the number of women on their boards, with or without legislation?

Many of the board members that I interviewed had resisted the legislation. Almost every one, in fact. Both men and women in the private sector objected to the "quotation" as they call it (in the US, we would call it a quota). You can guess the reasons: quotas are wrong because they are about diversity and business is about meritocracy; quotas are simply a form of institutionalized reverse discrimination--what about the men?; government has no business interfering with the workings of business; quotas on boards flew in the face of shareholder rights; if qualified women existed, we would already have them on the boards; women don't really want this anyway.

Two years later, in a series of one-on-one interviews, every single person said that the boards were measurably improved with the addition of the women. A couple of the boards already had a lot of women: those folks tended to think that a legislation solution had not been necessary. But those who experienced the resistance to having women on boards and then lived the difference when the issue was forced supported the legislation. The reason: the change would never have happened unless it was required.

I share below some quotes that represent the various points that the interviewees made. I do not attribute them directly because I would like to circle back to them to get their individual permission to do so, and Norway, being a sensible nation, is on vacation this month. That will come. In the meantime, here are some unedited, quite representative quotes:

*"I believe that an owner should be able to decide who should work to represent their interests on the board. I have a very big problem with someone saying that a board needs to be a certain way. But, I have to admit, looking back on it, no company regrets it."

*"If I had to generalize about the differences between men and women on boards? Women are more interested in getting the facts. Much more prepared; ask many more questions. Men tend to shoot from the hip. Women on boards are also more interested in how the organization will actually work. Think of an acquisition or a re-org to take a company more global. When women are in the discussion, they ask questions like: 'don't just show me the Powerpoint. Who are these people? What are their responsibilities? Matrix type questions. Women tend to see the organization as more of a living thing."

*"The most important value a board can give me as a CEO is free consulting help. The last thing I would want is the opinion of 3 identical men. Their job is to help me to think."

*"Think about the difference between an evening out with 3 of your girlfriends, or a guy and 3 of his guy friends, or two couple friends going out. It is always more interesting when the couples go out. Very different dynamics. The group dynamics totally change. More civilized. Less swearing, less jockeying for position. The problem with jockeying is that jockeying is about the individual's position, not about the company."

*"In general, diversity makes better decisions: experience, education, age, nationality, gender. They must reflect your customers and your markets. [Previous to the legislation], we had not thought any of this through as deliberately as we should have..."

*"I still do not think that legislation was necessary. Women are not like refugees that need to be assimilated. I don't think that Norwegian men think like that. Women were not on boards more by way of tradition. Patterns of behavior. Not about lack of respect for women's abilities. The [one] benefit of the quotation was that it made the change happen quickly."

*"The changes made (by the quotation) are less substantial than people thought they would be. We still see high quality board members. The women are as strong as the men. The board has become perhaps a bit broader in its approach, and more focused on 'the organization of the organization.' When management presents something to do--an acquisition for example--they had better think through the OD piece of it. The women are bringing their own business experience. Often they are younger, which is great--it's a huge advantage."

*"Women board members tend to take a more independent view."

*"Many of us [in business] reacted negatively because we feared it did not meet our first criteria: relevant competence. But I have learned that this quotation is very, very good. Diversity in general is good, and there is just something about having women."

*"What do women bring? We used to be a fraternity of men sitting on each others' boards. The real issue is the fraternity of men. It is necessary to break up the in-breeding. It is unhealthy how the men protect each other. They are unwilling to go up against the CEO, for example."

* "I disagreed with legislation at first. I believed that the shareholders should choose the board, full stop. The shareholders should not be handcuffed. But now I have lived it. And I have to tell you that the conversation is different and better. More open. Women are different from men: we want the whole story. We want to get at the underlying thing. We stay with that uncomfortable feeling that something is wrong until we find out what it is. We approach issues with a broader mind. We want to know the broader consequences, not just the result for the bottom line."

In blogs later this week, I will share an example from Statoil Hydro illustrating what women add to boards, at least in the opinion of the former board chair. I will also share some advice to women from board chairs around how to on-board to a board to maximize one's chances of success.

Best,
Kate (e-mail katesweetman@verizon.net )

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2 Comments

  • John Yocca

    A very insightful column Ms. Sweetman! We often hear and read stories about female leadership, specifically with regards to the C-Suite but rarely do you hear about the female influence on corporate boards. What would be really interesting, although I imagine impossibly hard to compile, is to examine the percentage of female shareholders to female representation on boards. Or how the increasing role of females on boards in directly impacting shareholders as well.

    Keep up the great writing Kate!

  • Alice Korngold

    A superb post, especially timely and relevant given the opening of the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings today. The diversity of backgrounds and perspectives, from highly qualified women and men, adds value to discussions and improves decision-making, thereby strengthening all enterprises.