Norway celebrates rise of powerful quartet of women

Many countries have had a female figurehead in public life such as Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Hillary Clinton in the US or Angela Merkel in Germany.

But none can match Norway where after Monday’s elections arguably the four most important jobs in the country could be held by women.

If the polls hold true, Erna Solberg, the leader of the centre-right Conservatives, should be crowned prime minister. And the expectations are high in Oslo that the leader of her likely coalition partner, Siv Jensen of the Progress party (pictured), will become finance minister. Throw in Gerd Kristiansen, the head of Norway’s trade union confederation LO, and Kristin Skogen Lund, her equivalent on the employer side for NHO, and it would be a formidable quartet.

“A lot of countries have had one woman in power at one time or other. But in Norway it has become something normal,” says Ms Solberg. Having these four at the same time “shows that Norway is a country where we have women in more and more power”.

The situation will have a symbolic significance even in Norway, which has taken a number of initiatives to boost female participation in the workplace as well as on company boards. Nearly three-quarters of females aged 15-64 are in work, the highest proportion in Europe behind Iceland and only just lower than that for men.

In the public sector, a little more than 50 per cent of managers are women. Four of the seven parties in parliament have a female leader, building on the legacy of Norway’s first female prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who governed three separate times starting in 1981.

“This could explain the reason for why one can expect a great number of new ministers to be female: it is part of our established political system,” says Grace Skaugen, a director at several prominent Nordic companies.

It is becoming more normal in other parts of the public sector as well with women running plenty of hospitals and schools. But Ms Skogen Lund, who as head of the NHO negotiates national wage settlements with Ms Kristiansen at LO, says women are also penetrating roles that have historically always been held by men. She recalls a recent meeting on security with the head of Norway’s intelligence services and business experts on risk, with all being women. “It’s interesting because we were there discussing a traditionally male topic,” she adds.

Much is due to Norway’s subsidised childcare system and generous parental leave, which encourages mothers to return to work quickly and reserves 10 weeks solely for fathers. Sigbjorn Johnsen, finance minister in the current centre-left government, says that more than four-fifths of mothers with young children work.

He also likes to tout the fact that if Norway were to reduce female participation in the workforce to the average for western OECD countries, it would lose as much national wealth as the entire oil sector and the country’s sovereign wealth fund provide.

But all is not entirely rosy for Norwegian women. For all the prominence in the public sector, it is a different story in companies. “What we see is a remarkable difference in female participation in the public and private sectors,” says Ms Skogen Lund.

Among Norwegian listed companies, only 6 per cent of chief executives are female and only 15 per cent for unlisted companies.

That stands in stark contrast to the idea behind one of Norway’s most internationally-famous policies in recent years: a quota to ensure 40 per cent of all non-executive board members at listed companies are female.

The quota has been successful in that sense with 41 per cent of directors now female, although among unlisted companies the figure is just 18 per cent. But the lack of female executives increasingly causes consternation.

“It has failed its primary purpose which was to stimulate more women in management,” says Ms Skogen Lund.

Ms Skaugen says the quota may even have some perverse effects, pushing promising female managers into lucrative non-executive roles rather than senior management.

The public sector is not perfect either, with Ms Kristiansen complaining that too many women are in part-time jobs when they would like to work longer.

One thing is clear: for all the pride at potentially having such a powerful female quartet, none of them will be doing each other any favours because of their gender. Ms Skogen Lund has already backed the Labour party over Ms Solberg’s Conservatives on the latter’s plan to end obligatory paternity leave.

And Ms Kristiansen, on being elected earlier this year, said “we will mobilise all we can” to stop Ms Solberg. Monday’s election is likely to show she has been unsuccessful.

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