Women hold several of the most powerful positions in Norwegian politics, the labour movement, academia and business trade associations, but none of Norway’s largest companies has a female chief executive officer. Trade Minister Monica Mæland now intends to exert some of the state’s influence, as a major shareholder, to prod board chairmen (also mostly men) into grooming and hiring women as CEOs.
The startling lack of female CEOs has become even more glaringly apparent in recent months, as large Norwegian firms like Statoil, Telenor and Yara just couldn’t seem to find a qualified woman to fill their top posts. In March, Mæland made it clear in newspaper VG that Telenor especially should look for woman to replace retiring CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas. Last month, the job went Telenor’s longtime chief of Asian operations, Sigve Brekke.
That prompted an outburst from shipowner Elisabeth Grieg, who inherited her top role at Grieg Star Group but also has sat on several boards of directors and commands respect as one of Norway’s leading businesswomen. She sent out a Twitter message right after Brekke’s appointment in which she wrote that it “was no bomb” that Telenor Chairman Svein Aaser “didn’t want a female CEO at Telenor, but what about the rest of the board?” She claimed there was “no lack of qualified candidates” and ended her angry reaction with Makan! That’s a rather tough Norwegian expression of indignation roughly equivalent to “The audacity!” and lying somewhere between strong disagreement and disgust.
Grieg’s tweet spread like wildfire and within days, her own indignation and attack on Aaser, a former CEO of Norway’s biggest bank, DNB, was making headlines and forcing Aaser to defend himself and the board. Brekke had the international experience that other candidates lacked, Aaser claimed, but then he stumbled by, consciously or not, making statements that were interpreted as patronizing and along the lines of “Elisabeth Grieg is so cute when she’s angry.” That set off more attacks on Aaser and all the men in powerful positions in business who invariably hire men like themselves.
Then the drama continued as, coincidentally or not, other major firms including classification society DNV GL and publishing house Gyldendal also hired new, white male CEOs. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that only 10 percent of state-controlled companies have a woman as CEO. Hardly any of the major companies listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange have a female CEO and DN’s survey showed that four out of 10 companies in which the state has a major stake only had one lone women in top management. State railway NSB has none. Grieg noted that of the 40 countries that it’s “natural” for Norway to be compared with, Norway is down in 40th place for its number of top business leaders. “That’s how bad it is,” she told newspaper Aftenposten.
Quotas worked at the board level
It’s strange, in a country where women currently hold the jobs of prime minister, finance minister, labour federation (LO) leader and the head of national employers’ organization NHO. Norway’s passage of a law 12 years ago that at least 40 percent of the members of company boards must be women has made that happen, yet women still haven’t broken into the corporate suite. Some argue that many women jump off the career carousel themselves, as they still face more demands and expectations on the home front. That hasn’t stopped top female politicians, though, so why female executives? Grieg claims it’s “just nonsense” to claim that women don’t want top jobs. Mæland’s government, though, isn’t keen on introducing more quotas for companies and remains reluctant to “instruct” companies despite have controlling stakes in them. Mæland does intend to make sure her “expectations” for women CEOs are known to the boards she often appoints.
Neither Aaser nor many of the other chairmen questioned during recent weeks would specify how many women were called in for interviews at Telenor, or who was considered. Kristin Skogen Lund, a former top executive at both media firm Schibsted and Telenor who now heads NHO, told newspaper Dagsavisen she was not contacted. Berit Svendsen, the only top female executive candidate within Telenor, told TV2 she would have taken the CEO’s job if asked but wouldn’t comment further, indicating she was not asked either.
Karin Thorburn, a professor at top Norwegian business school NHH (Norges Handeslhøyskole) in Bergen, told DN that “when a female candidate lacks experience in an industry it’s viewed as a flaw. When men lack experience, they’re viewed as having potential.” She said that studies show that if a woman laughs during a job interview, she’s viewed as not being serious. Men who laugh are viewed as charming and funny.
“When men consistently secure the chief executive jobs, it’s a consequence of women stumbling somewhere in the recruiting process,” Thorburn said. “Male CEO candidates are the norm. Women fall short simply by failing to be seen as the norm, and instead are viewed as different and deficient.”
Pressure to ‘do something’
Business and trade Minister Mæland, under pressure to “do something” given all the attention on the CEO issue in recent months, sent a letter on Tuesday to all the board leaders (she consciously did not refer to them in her letter as “chairmen”) of companies where the state has a significant stake, “inviting” them to a meeting in August. She intends to stress the need for “diversity and equality” in company management and she wants to know what their companies are doing to achieve it. She has asked them to define their own board’s responsibility and explain what they’re doing to promote diversity and equality. She will quiz them on their strategies for promoting equality in the workplace and what can be done “to get more women as leaders.”
It’s an “invitation” the board leaders can’t refuse, and they have the summer to prepare themselves for a grilling. Grieg, meanwhile, told newspaper Aftenposten the fallout from her tweet a few weeks ago has been “surreal.” She resorted to using the less-than-diplomatic makan to express her indignation, she said, when she heard Telenor hadn’t even asked Berit Svendsen if she was interested in the CEO job: “And after Monica Mæland had made it very clear she wanted to at least see some female candidates!”
In the end, “it’s just sad for Norwegian business” that so few women hold top management posts, Grieg told DN. “It’s a huge paradox that we, in the world’s most equality-minded country, are so bad at the leader level in business.” Now the large grocery store chain Coop is looking for a new CEO to replace Svein Fanebust. Another man, Geir Inge Stokke, was named as acting CEO while Coop’s board searches for a replacement.