How Norway Has us Beat on Women in Corporate Leadership

In the U.S., we’ve heard the dismal figures on women in corporate leadership positions time and again. Among Fortune 500 companies, women make up less than 5 percent of CEOs. Within boardrooms in these companies, women hold only 17 percent of seats.

We’re not alone in this poor performance. As of 2010, women held a similar 15 percent of corporate board seats in France, 13 percent in Germany, and 12 percent in Britain.

But in Norway, the picture is very different. When you walk into a corporate board room in Norway, you’ll find that four in ten board members are women. That means that women are an important part of the closed-door conversations that matter. Finally, they have a seat at the table.

So how did Norway do it? In 2003, the country passed a law requiring that public companies have 40 percent women on their boards. This was a huge change – back then, women held less than 7 percent of board positions in the private sector. Despite corporate pushback, companies complied and the Norwegian economy continued to grow. In fact, Norway’s GDP has risen from USD $538 billion in 2003 to USD $770 billion in 2012, not adjusted for inflation.

Here in the United States, we’re not considering this type of quota system. The Supreme Court has ruled against quotas in other cases, and the current political environment is unlikely to support top-down affirmative action mandates for corporations.

But that doesn’t mean we’re sitting idly by. Several U.S. Government and private sector programs are helping to move us in the right direction. In 2009, the SEC approved a rule requiring companies to publicly disclose whether they consider diversity when appointing people to their board of directors. And in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership—where I’m interning this summer—we’re working to help women entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. We’ve counseled and trained more than 270,000 entrepreneurs over the last two years through our network of Women’s Business Centers across the country. These are business savvy women who can help shift corporate leadership profiles toward greater inclusion and diversity.

On the private side, corporations are realizing they need to take action, too. In April 2014, Warren Buffett and other prominent business leaders launched a U.S. branch of the 30 Percent Club, an international, business-led group committed to developing a pipeline of senior female talent. Participating CEOs are voluntarily agreeing to appoint women to 30 percent of their board positions – a major step in the right direction. And as McKinsey reports, dozens of Fortune 1000 companies are already leading the way in promoting women to high-level leadership (read more on McKinsey’s list of “Best Performers” here).

We know we have a long way to go. Now the question is how the government and private sector actors can partner to move the needle across all of corporate America. Whether through incentives, regulation, or voluntary action, getting more women into corporate boards makes sense for our economy and for equality.

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