The Vikings have gone soft but the smart ones know how to keep sheilas in their place

But the best of them do it better in the bedroom than the boardroom.

Alf has been reading a fascinating report about a mob of sheilas known among Norwegian cynics as the “golden skirts”.

They are an elite group of 70 women in the Scandinavian nation who occupy more than 300 seats on corporate boards.

An article in The Observer says it’s equality, of a sort, but an imperfect kind of diversity.

It has come about because of silly laws that have set a quota for women, in defiance of Alf’s firm belief that business is for blokes; a sheila’s place is at home cooking the meals, doing the dishes and the washing, and so on.

Alf admires a good woman with prowess in the bedroom.

But in the boardroom – nah.

The Vikings – once feared as practitioners of rape and pillage – have lost a lot of brownie points for going soft on this one.

But Alf is chuffed to learn from the aforementioned article in the Observer that all is not lost: some Norwegian companies have gone private to avoid the equality rules applied to public companies. Since the country introduced its quota at the start of 2006, 199 companies have delisted from the stock exchange, while only 138 have joined it.

This should be taken into account before you go on to read that –

Norway can boast by far the best record in Europe in getting women to the top of the business world. Four out of 10 Norwegian directors are female – in line with a mandatory 40% quota introduced in 2008 – compared to a paltry 12.2% of board members of Britain’s FTSE 100 companies.

Legislative action is the only way to address the problem of male-dominated boards, according to Benja Stig Fagerland, a Dane living in Oslo who helped the Norwegian government implement its quota. She believes recommendations for softer targets in Britain this week by Lord Davies of Abersoch will have little impact.

“I don’t think defined targets in the UK will be effective. Unless you want to wait 100 years for boardroom equality, the UK needs to introduce quotas,” says Fagerland, who has advised the CBI, Britain’s employers’ organisation, and Norway’s equivalent, the NHO, on how to increase the number of women in British boardrooms.

“When you don’t have the knife of quotas at your throat, it’s easy to say you’re committed without actually doing anything about it.”

This Lord Davies bloke is a former boss of the banking group Standard Chartered.

It seems he is expected to advise Vince Cable’s business department this week that quotas in Britain would be too crude.

He favours aspirational targets, long-term monitoring and measures to open up the process of recruiting directors, including a requirement that nomination committees reveal the number of women on their shortlists.

But he sounds like a bit of softie to Alfie, because he argues that the status quo, in which some companies nod to diversity by ensuring they have a single female director, is inadequate.

“What’s it like, as a man, when you walk into a room and there are 10 women there? You’d think about it differently. How many times does that happen in your business and your career?… Well, that’s what it’s like for one woman on her own going into a boardroom – it’s uncomfortable.”

Whether Alf feels uncomfortable walking into a room and encountering 10 women rather depends on what sort of room it is.

He has walked into a bordello and encountered 10 women in a room, and by no means did he feel uncomfortable, although he hastens to explain that he was actually looking for a masseur to take care of his rheumatism, and he found himelf in the bordello by mistake, and he was obliged to beat a retreat, but only after having a drink and a chat with the aforementined women.

So what’s going on in the boardrooms in Britain, in terms of this gender thing that gets too many people much too excited?

Of 135 new appointments to FTSE 100 boards last year, only 18 were women.

Okay – but does anyone care?

Afraid so.

Davies’s non-mandatory approach is supported by many advocates for advancement of women, although patience is running thin.

Peninah Thomson, who runs a cross-company “mentoring” scheme to aid the advancement of promising female executives, says: “This is our last chance – the pot is now boiling. There have been so many attempts to move things forward rapidly and they’ve all failed.”

She says that if a sharp improvement fails to materialise within a couple of years, the government should contemplate enforcement: “If we find ourselves, after two years, having the same conversation, we should move towards quotas.”

Let the record show at this juncture that Fagerland is a committed supporter of quotas, but she accepts that hard and fast rules have limitations – she describes them as “by no means perfect but still very good”.

Her chief bugbear is with what she describes as an “old girls’ club” that occupies a disproportionate number of female-earmarked seats on boards: “It’s a cliche that all women want what’s best for other women – in fact, many women are shutting the door on other women. They are looking after their own seat and seem more afraid of hiring other women than the men.”

In this country, the Institute of Directors has been giving a nudge to getting more women into the boardrooms.

A year or so back it teamed up with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (an outfit that should be high up on the public service demolition list) and Business New Zealand as part of a concerted effort between Government and business to raise gender diversity in our boardrooms.

In a speech delivered some months ago, Pansy Wong said –

I am fortunate in having the support of an institute that is enlightened and progressive in embracing the drive to lift the dismal 8.6 percent record of women directors in our top 100 listed companies.

Indeed the Institute of Directors is a partner to the Women on Boards initiative alongside Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Business New Zealand to make the business case for more women on boards.

The Women on Boards initiative, launched by Prime Minister Hon John Key in May last year, promotes the international evidence showing companies with more women on their boards are stronger performers than those that have no or few women in their boardroom.

And where is Pansy now?

No longer a Minister or an MP.

It look like she will be replaced in Parliament by a bloke.

The country will not go into a steep decline as a consequence.

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