More quotas loom to boost equality

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Norway grabbed international attention when it demanded that at least 40 percent of corporate board seats must go to women. Now more quotas are under consideration, including one aimed at getting more women into top management, and debate is as lively as ever.

Loveleen Rihel Brenna delivered the women's panel's report to cabinet minister Audun Lysbakken, in charge of family and equality issues. He said it was full of "concrete proposals" he would study closely. PHOTO: regjeringen.no

Next month, hundreds of board members, executives, investors and researchers from 27 countries will gather in Oslo to discuss the experiences of Norwegian corporate boards since the country’s 40 percent quota law was first proposed in 2002, ironically by a government minister from the Conservative Party, which generally opposes quotas. Several other countries are now considering their own quota laws to boost board diversity, with top officials from France, the UK and the Netherlands on the program along with a long list of Norwegians.

Now a new quota law in Norway could require state-controlled businesses to allocate at least 40 percent of their top- and middle-management positions to women, and some think that should be extended to private business as well. The quota proposal aimed at state-controlled organizations is one of many included in a report delivered this week to the cabinet minister in charge of equality issues, by a government-appointed panel of 31 women led by author and consultant Loveleen Rihel Brenna.

The report from the so-called Kvinnepanelet makes 136 specific proposals aimed at boosting equality between the sexes in Norway, which already is considered among the most egalitarian countries in the world. Among them:

— Expanding Norway’s maternity and paternity leave from the current 46 weeks to 52 weeks at full pay, to be shared by both the mother and father

— Provision of day care and after-school programs at no extra charge to parents

— A requirement that all municipalities have programs to deal with domestic violence

— Elimination of the three-year probation period required of foreigners married to Norwegians to qualify for permanent residence

— A requirement that all organizations that receive public support must have boards with at least 40 percent women and 40 percent men

Several of the proposals have set off heated debate, including the expansion of Norway’s already-generous maternity and paternity leave. The current left-center government already is proposing that fathers’ portion of existing leave be boosted to 12 weeks from next summer. Some of the conservative parties in Norway equate such mandatory paternity leave to “socialist ideology,” even though big companies operating in Norway like Microsoft and IBM say it’s expected and supported that fathers take time off to spend with their newborn children.

Quota conflicts
It’s the proposed quota laws, though, that seem to have sparked the most disagreement, just as the 40 percent board law did when it was introduced. Women on both sides of the issue themselves had a lively debate on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Wednesday over whether companies should now also be forced to recruit more women into top management.

Today, though, organizers of the upcoming conference on board diversity claim women make up more than 40 percent of board seats at Norwegian companies, and many agree that such representation of women on boards would never have occurred if the companies weren’t forced to do so.

Ansgar Gabrielsen, the minister from the Conservative Party who launched the quota project, says he has no regrets even though he encountered much opposition from within his own party. He told NRK that it’s “simply right” that more women get seats on boards, and he feels his original proposal empowered many.

Opposition continues, however, and also over other issues. Several members of the women’s panel making the new proposals for more equality this week received threats and were harassed during the process, reports newspaper Aftenposten, especially women from minority groups in Norway. One panel member called the harassment a “reaction to brave women who dare to go public with clear opinions,” and an unsuccessful attempt to scare them into silence.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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