«Diversity - not equality»

Norway’s demand for 40 per cent female board members is unique. How could such a radical gender equality measure be implemented in a business world which is opposed to quotas? And by a minister from the anti-quota right wing party Høyre?

From New Years 2008 all Norwegian ASA companies must have at least 40 per cent women board members. This marks the end of the two year transitional period since the law was changed in 2006. Companies that fail to comply will face consequences.

Not «quotas»!

«I wouldn’t call this a quota law. This is a matter of diversity; diversity in the boardrooms.»

These were the words of the then minister of children and family affairs, Laila Dåvøy, as she spoke to the Parliament on 27 November 2003, during the debate over the Government’s proposition to impose a quota law on corporate boards.

Siri Øyslebø Sørensen. (Photo: Kristin Engh Førde)

– Dåvøy’s comment is a typical example of the Government’s rhetoric, says PhD student Siri Øyslebø Sørensen at the Centre for Gender Studies at The Norwegian University of Science and Technology. In her opinion, this law is somewhat paradoxical.

– Even though quotas for women are well-known in Norwegian politics they have been strictly limited to the public sector. But the then minister of trade and industry, Ansgar Gabrielsen from the traditionally anti-quota party Høyre, managed to break the barrier and apply the quota system to private corporations. You might wonder what happened, says Sørensen.

Rhetorical strategy

Sørensen’s doctoral thesis «Women on board. Changing balance – Changing beliefs?» deals with the question of what happened. One central element is how the apparent political consensus surrounding the law was created. What strategies were used to persuade corporate businesses? Sørensen searches for answers in political documents, media snippets, and business oriented literature on diversity and management. So far she has particularly noticed one recurring peculiarity.  

– Politicians speak of «diversity» when they are in fact talking about gender balance, as Laila Dåvøy did in the parliamentary debate. This seems to have been a rhetorical strategy to make their gender equality measures more acceptable to the business world. Perhaps they felt a need to distance themselves from quotas and state feminism? The term diversity allows them to promote the women’s cause without mentioning gender equality. Diversity is seen as an unqualified blessing and as something that benefits the corporations, says Sørensen.

What is diversity?

«There appears to be a broad agreement that women and men in many ways are different. Women think, act and see the world differently from men.» (Gender Equality Ombud Anne-Lise Ryel, quoted in Lønnsomt mangfold i ledelse og styrer (Profitable diversity in management and boardrooms) by Inger Lise Blakstad (2005).

– The diversity rhetoric implies that a better gender balance automatically leads to more diversity due to the differences between the genders, says Sørensen.

– Gender is presented as a sort of competence in itself. Women are assumed to be endowed with other qualities, but advocates of the law also emphasise that men and women have different experiences, says Sørensen.


«The business world ought to incorporate women onto their boards, the sooner the better. We must make better use of our resources and diversity.»

The instigator of the law, former minister of trade and industry Ansgar Gabrielsen, said this to the newspaper Fædrelandsvennen on August 8 2002. Gabrielsen stresses the business world’s own interest in increasing the female ratio, not women’s right to participate. In the debate leading up to the resolution it was, according to Sørensen, often argued that more women would increase profitability. Afterwards, this element was somewhat downplayed. One possible explanation may be the non-conclusive results from various surveys. Some showed that gender balance would lead to increased profitability, others showed the opposite or denied any connection between the two factors.

– Besides the financial aspect, it was also argued that women are a resource in other ways; that they are inclined towards other values and interests than men. For instance, women are often said to be ethical, democratic, and better at seeing the big picture. Statements like «women can hold two thoughts simultaneously, therefore we need you» are common, says Sørensen.

A changing market

«Society has changed from an industrial society to a knowledge society. A knowledge based industry contributes to strengthen women’s position. This is not a gender equality revolution, but a knowledge revolution. Women and men are different. (…)» (Businessman and among the richest men in Norway, Kjell Inge Røkke, quoted in Blakstad 2005).

According to Sørensen, this quote from Røkke illustrates another important element of the diversity rhetoric:

– Many people want to emphasise that the need for diversity – women, that is – in boardrooms has emerged in line with the changing market. So they are not saying that something has been missing up until now. These steps to change the gender balance stem from current demands for new competence and a need to adjust to market demands, Sørensen explains.

– So diversity is not a timeless value in itself?

– Much of the rhetoric doesn’t present it as such. There seems to be some kind of short circuit occurring when the promotion of gender balance is translated into a market economy language. The matter of equal opportunities is replaced with notions on profitability, Sørensen replies.

– The rhetoric clings to the assumption that the genders are fundamentally different. One might wonder what the consequences will be if it turns out that women’s competence doesn’t differ from men’s. Will they be thrown out, Sørensen asks.  

Now what?

Sørensen is curious to follow the debate after New Years, when the transitional period is over. Before she resigned this autumn, former minister of children and equality Karita Bekkemellem warned that companies that fail to reach the quota will be forced to dissolve. «This law is no joke,» she said.

There are still companies that don’t comply with the law. It will be interesting to see if the new minister is as aggressive as Bekkemellem. As of yet, I have not heard her commenting on this matter. It will also be interesting to see if the business world will turn on the law if companies are actually dissolved, Sørensen says.

Translated by Vigdis Isachsen

Phd project

Siri Øyslebø Sørensen: Women on board. Changing balance – Changing beliefs?

This is an ongoing project. Sørensen is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

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