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GC MAGAZINE > Summer issue 2015 > BIG PICTURE

GENDER DIVERSITY INITIATIVES

Doing it differently

GC explores what corporate counsel can do to further diversity – in their in-house legal department, the wider organisation, or throughout the business world. We pick the brains of general counsel across the globe about programmes they’ve pioneered or adopted to create a diverse workplace. In the first in a series of case studies, this issue we look at gender diversity.


GENDER DIVERSITY INITIATIVES

Quotas and the status quo

In 2003, the Norwegian government put in place a voluntary quota for public companies to increase their female board representation to 40%. This became compulsory from 2008, and by 2009 affected companies had achieved full compliance. We discuss the thorny issue of quotas with Norwegian corporate counsel and board member Synne Homble.

With global businesses tackling the dearth of female board members, the issue of quotas is hotly contested. Opponents point to a paucity of suitably qualified women in business, leading to the rise of ‘golden skirts’ – a small group of women who hold multiple board positions.

But with just one external board membership to her name, Synne Homble doesn’t fit the cynic’s mould. She has been on the board of Norwegian power grid operator Statnett since 2013, and is also chief officer for legal and corporate functions at Oslo-headquartered international fish farming group, Cermaq. A savvy business operator, she has expanded her role to include functions outside of purely legal, and is also a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) national contact point for responsible business, appointed by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Synne is broadly upbeat about the gender quota. ‘My personal view is that it has made a difference,’ she says. Organisations that had previously relied on circulated and recirculated lists of board candidates were forced to re-think their strategy, she says. Companies began to work in a more systematic way to search for different kinds of candidates. In Synne’s view, the search for board members has now become more structured and professionalised. ‘When the new rules were introduced there were a lot of initiatives to create peer lists, databases and overviews of teams and qualified candidates,’ she explains. Organisations also began to use recruiters, searching in much the same way as they would for an executive position. ‘They map, in detail, different relevant companies and positions, and that way they find a broader selection of candidates than when companies selected only on hearsay, people they had read of in the news, or who had visibility in some other way.’

The results have been positive: ‘It led to a lot of very qualified women coming into the boards – and having different perspectives and different backgrounds improves decision quality.’ But on top of yielding results in the (fairly) short term, Synne thinks that the attitudinal shift is here to stay. It’s a virtuous circle; the more women that are brought into the boardroom, the more experienced women board members there are to choose from in the talent pool. Plus, companies are becoming accustomed to almost equal gender representation on boards. And there’s no going back, according to Synne: ‘I think if you took away the rules today, the change in representation probably wouldn’t be that big – because now the trend has already changed.’ But would this sea change have happened on its own? ‘I don’t think we would have gotten to this stage here if it hadn’t for the mandatory rule,’ she argues.

The quota debate is rearing its head again in Norway, says Synne, because the increase in women at board level has not translated to a rise in female top-level executives in management teams. In January 2014, Management Today quoted a rise of just 3% in the number of women in senior management – from 15% to 18% since 2008. In this regard, perhaps Norway has been a victim of its own success: ‘In Norway, the level of diversity is rather good,’ says Synne. In her view, the reason for the sluggish rise of female top executives is down to the type of business roles that women tend to choose. ‘In the search for senior executives, companies look for women who have the experience of being responsible for the bottom line, but very often the women that you find in positions that they could recruit from are more like myself – they are responsible for staff functions. If you find them, you find them to be CFO, general counsel, responsible for HR. You rarely find them to be responsible for the operations or the results. This is where we need to make a change if we want to see more women rising to the very top level.’

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