While Norway’s election handed power to a coalition led by women, Scandinavia’s richest economy is reserving its top corporate jobs and biggest pay checks for men.
Norway is set to get its first female prime minister in 17 years as Conservative Party leader Erna Solberg, 52, takes over on Oct 18. Her coalition partner, the Progress Party, is led by 44-year-old Siv Jensen. Women also head Norway’s largest labor union and its biggest employers group.
Yet the corporate sphere remains a man’s world. Norway’s historic quota system for supervisory boards -- a model that is now being copied elsewhere in Europe -- is doing little to push women into executive roles. None of the 25 biggest companies on the Oslo bourse has a female chief executive, and only one has a woman as chief financial officer.
“You can’t just say that if you have more women in politics, things are getting better,” Kristin Clemet, head of Oslo-based research institute Civita and a former education minister, said in an interview at her office behind the Norwegian parliament. “That’s just too easy.”
The average salary for a CEO at one of Norway’s top 25 listed companies was about 8.4 million kroner ($1.4 million) in 2011, according to a study by pension fund KLP. That compares to annual pay this year of 837,000 kroner for a member of parliament and about 1.5 million kroner for the premier.
Part of the reason women aren’t making it to the top of Norway’s corporate ladder stems from their under-representation in the private sector, said Mari Teigen, research director at the Institute for Social Research in Oslo.
Men also dominate among top non-elected officials overseeing finance and the economy. The governor and deputy governor of the central bank are both men, as are all six top executives at the nation’s $780 billion sovereign wealth fund.
The number of women working in the public sector was 71 percent in 2011, compared with 37 percent in the private sector, according to Statistics Norway. Men earned 15.7 percent more on average than women in 2012, also taking into account the effect of part-time work, official data show.
A study released last year by researchers at Agderforskning of oil and gas companies operating in southern Norway found that 18 percent of the employees were women and that 0.07 percent of those that responded were female top management. The survey targeted 57 companies and got a response from 35.
While research is unclear on why more women have made it into the Norwegian public sector versus corporations, Clemet said women are reluctant to go into the private sector because those jobs aren’t amenable to family life.
“Women are choosing this more than they are hitting a glass ceiling,” she said. Women prefer jobs with flexible routines and the option for part-time work, something the public sector can offer, she said.
About 43 percent of women in Norway work part-time, compared to 13 percent of men, according to Statistics Norway.
The figures raise questions around Norway’s experiment with gender quotas. Since the country in 2003 enforced a law stipulating that women make up at least 40 percent of corporate boards at listed companies with more than 10 employees, other European nations have followed. Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Iceland either plan to, or have already implemented similar policies. The European Commission in 2012 proposed a quota system to bring more women onto corporate boards.
Solberg, the incoming premier, and Clemet both say Norway’s quota rule hasn’t led to any significant improvements. Not only has it done little to help women succeed in the top ranks of the corporate sphere, studies show there’s no clear evidence that companies with more women are benefiting, Clemet said, citing New York-based consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and the Norwegian School of Management.
Some research found that board competency decreased after inexperienced women were rushed in to fulfill the quota.
“I don’t think you can use quotas to get more women into the corporate world,” Solberg said in an interview. “You have to give women more opportunities to build better CVs.”
Efforts to review gender equality in Norway match standards across Scandinavia to ensure men and women are paid the same for the same job. The Nordic region tops the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index for 2012, reflecting the smallest difference in pay between the two sexes. Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden took the top four spots. The index measures national gender gaps on economic, political, education and health-based criteria.
Outgoing Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has called Norway’s first female head of government, Gro Harlem Bruntland, his mentor. His Labor-led coalition has continued her legacy in seeking to raise female labor-market participation through measures that have mostly led to public sector employment.
“The percentage of women taking part in the labor force increased from some 45 percent to over 80 percent in 20 years,” outgoing Finance Minister Sigbjoern Johnsen said in a speech this month. “That is the most forward looking investment that we’ve done.”
In the U.S., 58.1 percent of women were part of the labor force, according to the Department of Labor.
Unlike much of the rest of the developed world, Norway has ample funds to throw at any issue the government thinks warrants support. Western Europe’s biggest oil and gas producer is backed by a $780 billion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s biggest. The nation offers some of the most generous parental benefits available, spending about 15 billion kroner ($2.5 billion) a year to help young families, according to government figures. Parents can take as long as 14 months leave and children are guaranteed a place in a state-subsidized day care from the age of one.
The generous benefits system, backed by a majority in the parliament, needs to be accompanied by more targeted programs, Teigen at the research institute now said. She predicts the incoming Conservative-led government may be better equipped to address the gender gap, since Labor has typically been more interested in the public sector.
“Business life and gender equality in top positions are closer to the interest field of the” Conservative-led government, Teigen said.