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women directors

The heat generated by the proposal for an European Union-wide quota for female non-executive directors has reminded many in Norway of the controversy in the Nordic country a decade ago.

In 2003, the Norwegian parliament passed a law forcing listed companies to have women in at least 40 per cent of board room positions. The law came into full force in 2008. Now that the goal has been reached, the controversy has died down, as many of the suspected problems failed to materialize.

"To look at the trauma it has caused in Europe, it is exactly the same as it was in Norway 10 years ago. Didn't they learn anything from history?" asks Turid Solvang, managing director of the Norwegian Institute of Directors.

Idar Kreutzer, who sits on the nomination committees of many Norwegian boards, says simply: "It is not a big issue any more. Everybody seems to be happy with the way things have developed."

Headhunters were forced to look outside the normal cozy circles of chief executives sitting on each other's boards and search in novel areas: lawyers, academics and former ministers have become non-executives while foreign businesswomen are in strong demand.

Lady Barbara Judge, a U.S.-born former chair of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, now sits on the board of Statoil, Norway's biggest company. She says she was totally unaware Norway even had a quota when appointed.

"It just didn't seem surprising to me. In actual fact the women directors were extremely articulate and very significant on the board (one is deputy chairman). I didn't realize for at least a month that there was a quota," she says.

Arguments that there would not be enough women have largely been disproved, although some have taken on so many directorships they have been christened "golden skirts." Several Norwegian male directors admit privately that the quality of discussion has improved since more women were appointed. "They often ask different questions to us," one says.

But there is one big problem still in Norway: the lack of female executives.

McKinsey's Women Matter study this year showed that while women accounted for 35 per cent of all non-executive board members in Norway (the quota does not apply to small unlisted companies), they only represent 15 per cent of executive management.

Some older non-executives in Oslo say they see younger females who, faced with the choice of pushing on to reach the top executive positions or taking several board roles, are plumping for the latter.

"I don't think the issue is non-executives. The real issue is about executive directors. It is about women coming up through the ranks to become chief executive. That is the issue that women and men need to think about now," says Lady Judge.

As a former head of insurer Storebrand, Mr. Kreutzer set an internal target of 40 per cent of managers to be female and reached 39 per cent. But he admits that it is a worry that many Norwegian females seem to prefer the non-executive route: "It is clearly the case that we have not made the progress on the senior executive level."

For some such as Ms. Solvang, the lack of female executives should not detract from the fact that the quota has achieved its goal: 40 per cent of listed companies' directors are female.

But for others there is a feeling that both at the Norwegian and European level the bigger picture may be being missed.

Lady Judge says of the stance by countries such as the U.K. and Sweden against the EU quota: "I was shocked at how heated the debate was . . . If countries are going to stand up for their rights… I would much rather see the debate on countries giving up their powers on financial regulation, not this."