Several women including Elisabeth Grieg remain the top candidates to take over as chairman of Norway’s troubled telecoms firm Telenor. Speculation has been growing over whether more Telenor board members will be replaced, and whether the board would dare to appoint another man.
Grieg was one of the biggest critics when former Telenor Chairman Svein Aaser announced last spring that Sigve Brekke would become Telenor’s new chief executive. Expectations were high that one of several highly qualified women would finally break through the proverbial glass ceiling at a company that’s majority-owned by the Norwegian state, which prides itself on being advocates of gender equality. Aaser has said Brekke was chosen based on his international experience as head of Telenor’s Asian operations and his solid track record at the company.
A few months later, in late October, Aaser himself had to resign under fire in connection with an ongoing bribery investigation at Telenor’s partly owned VimpelCom. Since then, the embattled company and its board have been accused of nothing less than male chauvinism and seem to reel from crisis to crisis. In addition to all the trouble because of the bribery investigation, Telenor’s new CEO Brekke has been caught for embellishing his resumé and forced to apologize for that, and charges have swirled this week that no female candidates actually made it into the final round of the CEO hiring process. Aaser, in his first response to questions about Telenor, has denied that.
It’s no secret that the government minister in charge of business and trade, Monica Mæland, is frustrated by developments at Telenor and keen to see a woman appointed as styreleder (literally, “board leader,” a more gender-neutral term than styreformann, or “chairman”). While some female business leaders warn against appointing a woman to fill a quota, others contend there are plenty of highly qualified candidates. Among the leading ones: Grieg, who has headed the national shipowners association in addition to running the family-controlled Grieg group; attorney Alexandra Bech Gjørv, best known for heading the July 22 commission and who now serves a head of SINTEF in Trondheim; former Telenor and Aftenposten executive Kristin Skogen Lund, who now heads the national employers’ organization NHO; and Gunn Wærsted, head of bank and finance firm Nordea in Norway.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported recently that the delay in naming a new board chairman at Telenor may be tied to moves to replace the board itself, or at least several of its members. Anders Skævestad, currently listed as “deputy chairman” on Telenor’s own website, was non-committal: “It’s a new board leader we have begun to look for,” Skævestad told Aftenposten, adding that he had no comment about changes on the board itself. He earlier had told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that the search for a new Telenor chairman could take time, but “we’ll work as quickly as we can.”
New CEO Brekke didn’t help quiet the critics when he announced his new management team at Telenor after taking over in August. Only three of the 21 people in Telenor’s top management are women, a figure that Grieg called “a pure provocation.” That suggests she and Brekke might not get along well if she become chairman, even though Brekke admitted to DN that the ratio of men to women was nothing to be proud of. “It’s not good enough, I’m the first to admit that,” he said. He blamed an overall lack of high-ranking female executives at the company, not just in top management.
Brekke’s team was formed after government minister Mæland had called in the “board leaders” of all the companies in which the state holds major ownership stakes, to urge them to improve diversity and gender balance at top management levels. On Wednesday, Aftenposten’s political commentator Trine Eilertsen wrote that if it was possible to fire Aaser once again, Mæland would probably do so, over his failure to find a female CEO and alleged failure to search very hard for one. Brekke’s position has come into question over his CV embellishments and his failure to follow Mæland’s gender equality requests.
Aftenposten also reported that of the 55 leaders of Telenor offices abroad, only one woman has been among them, in Montenegro. Only around 3,000 of Telenor’s roughly 30,000 employees worldwide work in Norway, so the lack of gender equality abroad is a bone of contention as well.