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Norway - women at the top



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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October 12, 2010

I have just returned from a different world - one I would imagine that the British astronomer, Steven Hawkings, has never thought of. It made me think that if we are making a list of the underdeveloped countries we had better add to that North America and most of Europe and Japan.

I’ve been in Norway, the world’s most advanced country, apart from Iceland, in successfully pursuing the art of making women equal. In a week I’ve met all sorts of women- women in high positions in companies, women working whilst the man stays at home with the baby, senior female civil servants and female doctors, who form a majority in the hospitals. I should add to that school girls and female university students who are away ahead of boys in terms of achievement.

I don’t want to drown you in statistics but here are a handful of the main ones:

Politics: In the cabinet 50% of ministers are female; in parliament 40% are women.
Work: 80% of women have jobs.
Company boards: In the public sector 40% are women; in the private sector 17%.
In higher education one out of three women are studying compared with one out of four men.

Forty years ago Norway woke up to the fact that nothing much would change women playing second fiddle until there was an almighty push. Bit by bit the frontiers have been edged forward, not without a good deal of male opposition. In 2003, when parliament passed a law demanding a gender balance on the boards of private companies, many business leaders, according to Arni Hole, the director general of the Norwegian Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion, “argued loudly that able women cannot be found, women will not take on such responsibilities and our firm will go broke and we will have to leave Norway if we are to prosper”.

But there are plenty of women with the requisite skills to serve on company boards. Forced by the law, companies found them among lawyers, academics and former government ministers. Needless to say, these women don’t have too much experience in business but they have shown they are clever enough to learn the ropes quite fast.

The big push now is get women into more managerial positions. Companies have long resisted this, arguing that this will put an unnecessary burden on the company and reduce its competitiveness in overseas markets. They have to make costly concessions to women- their need to be absent when the children are ill or for months after a new child is born. (Also women are allowed to leave work an hour early if they are breast feeding.) But, say proponents of sexual equality, in practice Norway has not lost its cutting edge on the export front. It has been forced to work hard to compensate for more generous social policies by increasing its productivity.

The progress in advancing women in business still has a long way to go, but the percentage is climbing. According to Futura, which runs one year courses for would-be top female managers, in 2004 women held 36% of all management jobs. Today it is 42%. 


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Women appear to be less bound by traditional male conventions, whether it is doing business (and wasting a lot of time) on the golf course or being embarrassed in a meeting that they do not know something. Women demand answers to more questions. Grace Reksten, a prominent director, (now the boss of a big company), is held up as an example. Persistent questioning of her male colleagues when she refused to accept the answers about a corruption probe led to the resignation of the chief executive and chairman of the powerful state oil company, Statoil. Women too see the human side of a problem. “When someone has to be fired the male bosses tend to be insensitive but women have another way of doing it”, she argues.

In the home, things are changing rapidly. Most of the older generation would never consider fathers staying home with their young infants. Now it is almost universal. The leave given to young parents is a year. Fathers and mothers can divide that time up as they want. But if fathers refuse to look after the infants for at least 10 weeks the family will lose the refunding of his salary.

I found it rather odd visiting a family where the man stayed at home, kissing his wife goodbye as she went off to work and then, after he had made me a cup of tea, seeing him playing in the sitting room with his baby, accompanied by two male friends doing the same with their babies.

But then I might as well have been on another planet. I have never been to a country quite like Norway. I’m glad I did. I have seen the future and know it works.


Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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