“I had expected more of Telenor,” exclaimed Linda Hofstad Helleland after the state-controlled company failed to retain its most senior female executive who has consistently delivered strong financial results. Helleland is Norway’s government minister in charge of equality matters, and she’s upset over the fate of Telenor’s Berit Svendsen.
“This can’t continue,” Helleland told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday, after Svendsen’s resignation had dominated Norwegian media all morning. “It’s untenable that one of Norway’s biggest companies, which has all the possibilities at hand to recruit the best women to the top of company management, doesn’t manage to have a better gender balance than it has.”
It now appears that after Svendsen’s departure, only two of Telenor’s top management team of nine will be women, unless some other operational posts are taken into the fold. Norway, which prides itself on an egalitarian image, has a law demanding that at least 40 percent of all board positions must be held by women. There is no quota law for women in management.
The state also controls and remains the largest shareholder in Telenor, which evolved from Norway’s former public telephone and telegraph utility. The state’s 54 percent stake gives Helleland and other government ministers some clout in expressing dissatisfaction, but they rarely meddle in management.
Helleland seemed to be making an exception when she told NRK that she had a thing or two to say to Telenor’s chief executive, Sigve Brekke, when they next meet. “I will tell him what I think about the negative development of the company,” she said.
The minister thinks companies in which the state has a stake have a special obligation to set an example for diversity in management. Instead they mostly remain dominated by so-called “white guys in ties,” with few women and little reflection of Norway’s increasingly multi-cultural population.
“It’s striking that there’s such a lack of diversity,” Helleland said. “This is an example that things are going the wrong way in Telenor.”
‘We expect more diversity’
When Brekke took over as CEO at Telenor in 2015, he declared that Telenor would nurture more women leaders. There remain very few at the highest levels of the company, and that’s what upsets Helleland.
“It’s untenable that there is such a lack of diversity in rooms where capital is flowing,” she told NRK. “We expect more diversity. There’s a lot that can be done to improve gender balance in business, but top management has to want that.”
Both Brekke and Telenor’s female leader of its board of director, Gunn Wærsted, claim they did what they could to retain Svendsen but she refused all alternative jobs offered to her. Svendsen had long expressed that she was very happy where she was, leading Telenor’s operations in Norway and in the whole of Scandinavia. Brekke and the board, however, wanted to transfer her to Thailand to lead Telenor’s southeast Asian operations and thus gain more international experience. The move would have removed Svendsen from top management, however, and involved a major move for her family, and she refused it.
Brekke and Wærsted claim Svendsen also refused other transfers. Faced with losing her spots at the head of Telenor Norge and Scandinavia when her contract ran out, she apparently opted to resign. Svendsen has so far refused to comment or answer questions, so her actual reason for resigning remains unclear.