Telenor accused of ‘macho culture’

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Troubled, state-controlled Telenor has been subject to even more static in Norway after reports that the company has been run for many years under a male-dominated power structure that excluded women. Former CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas failed to address concerns over the alleged “macho culture,” and a Member of Parliament claimed that the company, also caught in a major bribery investigation, is now in “full crisis.”

Much of the trouble at Telenor, not least in the area of women being allegedly kept out of top management, is being traced back to Jon Fredrik Baksaas. He was CEO at Telenor from 2002 until his retirement earlier this year, and held top posts in the company since 1994. Telenor cut all ties with Baksaas this past autumn. PHOTO: Telenor/Creative Commons

Much of the trouble at Telenor, not least in the area of women being allegedly kept out of top management, has been traced back to Jon Fredrik Baksaas. He was CEO at Telenor from 2002 until his retirement earlier this year, and held top posts in the company since 1994. Telenor cut all ties with Baksaas this past autumn. PHOTO: Telenor/Creative Commons

Norwegian media outlets were full of reports once again on Friday that further draw into question the credibility of one of Norway’s largest and most international companies. Telenor already has been forced to explain and defend how it has handled bribery allegations at its partly owned mobile phone firm VimpelCom, at which only male executives at Telenor were involved in important roles. Now the company has been forced to admit that women have held a disproportionately low share of real management responsibility over the years and all over the world.

“We are being clear now that (the company’s percentage of female executives) is too low,” Glenn Mandelid, communications chief at Telenor, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Friday. Telenor’s new CEO Sigve Brekke, who’s also been in trouble for embellishing his educational and work experience records, also admitted on state broadcaster NRK’s nightly national newscast Thursday that Telenor had a poor record of women in top management roles. “It’s not something we’re proud of,” said Brekke on the widely watched newscast Dagsrevyen, even though he also has been roundly criticized for including only three women in his own new top management team of 21. The other 18 members of his management team, announced just a few months ago, are all men.

‘Secret’ report resurfaces
On Friday morning, NRK reminded listeners of a “secret” internal report at Telenor prepared as long as 11 years ago that described an “uncomfortable male culture” at Telenor. Women at the company described how important decisions were made within an informal male network at the company, and how women were ignored and passed over for promotion. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), which covers Telenor closely, wrote about the report in December 2004, in which 15 women at various management levels within Telenor at the time spoke about a company in which it was difficult to be a woman. They claimed that Telenor portrayed them externally as leaders, but in reality they felt overlooked and that they held little real power.

Much of the problem was blamed squarely on Telenor’s chief executive at the time. “Jon Fredrik Baksaas was not very interested in diversity among his management,” one former female employee at Telenor told NRK on Friday. “Middle-aged, white men had the easiest time.” Added another: “Especially in social situations, it was the male culture that dominated.”

Berit Svendsen, head of Telenor's operations in Norway, is one of the very few women who have made it into top management roles at Telenor. She's also the only woman believed to have been included in Telenor's search for a new CEO, although that's unclear. Svendsen herself hasn't felt it appropriate to comment. PHOTO: Telenor/Creative Commons

Berit Svendsen, head of Telenor’s operations in Norway, is one of the very few women who have made it into top management jobs at Telenor. She’s also the only woman believed to have been included in Telenor’s search for a new CEO, although that’s unclear. Svendsen herself hasn’t felt it appropriate to comment. PHOTO: Telenor/Creative Commons

The report and ongoing concerns over a lack of the gender equality that’s highly promoted at the government level in Norway caught the attention of government ministers. The government is responsible for the state’s investment in companies like Telenor, which evolved from the state’s former public telephone utility, and ministers in both the former Labour Party-led- and current Conservatives-led government coalitions sent strong signals that Telenor needed to allow more women into top management. Two years after the report came out, Baksaas instead appointed two new men to his management team.

“We had several meetings with the chairman and the chief executive of Telenor, where we took up the lack of gender balance,” Odd Eriksen, who was Labour’s government trade minister at the time, told NRK. “There were few women in Telenor’s leadership. They listened and are polite people … but it was like talking to a wall. They did not take up the signals we sent and that’s all we could do.” Even though the state holds a 54 percent stake in Telenor, state officials can only directly influence appointments to the board of directors. They’re not supposed to meddle in management itself.

Eriksen’s successors as government ministers in charge of business and trade encountered similar problems, as has Norway’s current trade minister Monica Mæland. She ultimately expressed a lack of confidence in Telenor’s most recent chairman, Svein Aaser, prompting his immediate resignation under fire in October. Her lack of confidence was mostly tied to how he had handled the bribery investigation but she has also been a strong proponent of more women in management, and been criticized for not achieving results. Her power, like her predecessors’, however, is limited.

NRK reported that Baksaas refused to be interviewed about the lack of gender equality at Telenor during his tenure, sending only a message that “the problem is complex.” Telenor’s spokesman Glenn Mandelid claims the company is now taking active steps to boost the percentage of women in top management to at least 25 percent by the end of next year.

‘New efforts underway’
Brekke also claimed on NRK Thursday night that efforts will be made to get more women into management worldwide. The company announced earlier this autumn, for example, that Telenor will offer fully-paid maternity benefits for female employees at all its operations around the globe (in Norway women already get up to a year at full pay, and fathers also are expected to take paternity leave). The company has set a goal that all new recruits in Pakistan are to be women. Telenor will support the establishment of career networks and competence development programs both globally and in Norway. In specific hiring situations where competence is found to be equal among management candidates, Telenor has established guidelines that a female candidate is to be preferred. And Telenor now demands that more women be included as possible candidates when planning future management positions.

Telenor officials and former chairman Aaser continue to deny, howver, reports that the company overlooked top female candidates for the CEO post that was offered to (and accepted by) Brekke last spring. Aaser has insisted that women were among those in the final round of interviews. Others claim only three men were ultimately considered for the job. Mæland summoned acting board leader Frank Dangeard to her office Thursday afternoon to grill him on the process. DN reported Friday that she was informed that the final candidates boiled down to three men, setting off criticism from opposition politicians over her role as well. Dangeard wouldn’t comment on the content of their conversation, saying only that Telenor’s CEO recruitment was “good and thorough.”

Meanwhile, a member of the Parliament’s business and trade committee from Mæland’s own party claimed Friday that Telenor was now “in full crisis” and that the company’s reputation was extremely thin. “Therefore it’s more important than ever that Telenor gets a new board leader in place who is capable of lifting the company out of the quagmire it’s in,” MP Frank Bakke-Jensen told DN. Commentators and politicians claim it would now be almost impossible for Mæland to accept a male candidate, as pressure grows for Telenor’s new chairman to be a woman.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund