Allocation of Board Quotas? In Sweden?!

Are quotas the only option to increase women's representation on boards in Sweden?



For over the past 15 years in Sweden, legislation to increase the number of women on corporate boards of directors has come up from time to time. The reason is, of course, that nothing much is happening. It is moving forward, yes, but slowly. In 2002 the then deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, Social Democrat Mrs. Margareta Winberg, was threatening Swedish corporations that if they did not manage to look for competence instead of a person’s sex/gender, Winberg would suggest a law, regarding allocations of quotas. Without Winberg doing anything more, the result of the “threat” was that the number of women in company boards went from 6.1% in 2002 to 11.6% in 2003. Strange?
 
Since 2006 Sweden has experienced a slow but steady increase in women’s representation on corporate boards, with women holding between 18-22% of all board seats the last few years. However, it seems like we have reached a standstill. And there are also considerable differences between different industries and regions in Sweden.

In October 2012 Sweden was one of ten countries within EU (European Union) that said no to allocation of quotas, which was suggested by the EU commissioner, Viviane Reding. Competence should rule, these countries said!

I thought that today, there could not be anyone who believes that there are no competent women around. But, guess what? In January 2014, the chairman of The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, Mr Jens Spendrup, was interviewed by a Swedish radio station (later also on TV channels) and said that there are no women in Sweden, or at least very few, that could serve on “big company” boards. This was striking, as the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (Svenskt Näringsliv) is Sweden’s largest and most influential business federation and has claimed that competence should be the decisive factor in all recruitment, regardless of an employee’s level in an organization.

What happened after Mr. Spendrup’s blunder? Many expressed outrage via social media and there were also many protests. And politicians reacted strongly too. 12 years after Mrs. Wingård’s threat (see above), there was a new threat, and this time from the Minister of Finance, Mr. Anders Borg, (who is part of a right wing-liberal government) who said something akin to “enough is enough”: “If nothing radical is going to happen, we will not hesitate to put a law in place within the next coming 2-3 years.” (You should also know that 2014 is election year in Sweden, and women do vote...)

In other words, the pace of progress for women’s representation on corporate boards in Sweden is so slow that it seems that the only way forward, is by creating laws. Or threats of a law.

Does anyone really believe that it is only because of competence men occupy seats in boards and managerial groups? Contacts, friendships, personal relations, services in return or sheer chance are rather common reasons. Besides, there are ways to find women nowadays. Female networks are ever-present, so it is just a matter of where to start the search.

But another issue is why women should serve on boards at all? Wouldn’t it be better, or as important, if they held top management positions? That way, they could, perhaps, influence the values and norms of the company. A lot of reports are telling us that this has an effect on the business as a whole. Not because they are women, it is competence that rules. Corporate boards do not have any real influence over recruitment or managership in the day to day business.

According to the Swedish Allbright Foundation there will be 40-60% women in Swedish management teams in the year 2041, if we continue with the speed we have today. Sadly, this means that I will be dead before it will happen!

The board can be of great symbolical value, whether it be for the students at the university, employees, women climbing up the ladder, and for the image of the company. So women should of course make their way into boards as well as management groups. But, I haven't heard many women in Sweden, apart from some politicians, who support the demand for legislation. There can be different reasons for that. You may agree to legislation but keep quiet so you don’t spoil your own chances, or you simply consider it unimportant whether there are more women in the boardroom.
 
It goes without saying that men do recruit other men to boards and all other positions since men believe that they know how other men works, but it is questionable if they know something about women. Apart from what they learned during their first ten to twelve years in their lives, spending time with mommy, and at kindergarten. Or by watching Mad Men on TV!

It’s an election year in Sweden this September so I’ll be monitoring the situation closely.

Do you think Sweden really needs legislation to increase women’s representation on boards? Or is it the current way of recruitment that has to be changed? What do you think?

Posted by Lars Einar Engström on Mar 13, 2014 12:35 PM EDT

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