Norway stunned the corporate world in 2002 when it passed a law requiring corporate boards to be comprised of at least 40% women. Corporate executives deemed it "total madness," saying they couldn't find qualified women for the posts. Enter Elin Hurvenes, an entrepreneur with an MBA from the London Business School, who started the Professional Boards Forum to bring together executives and experienced businesswomen. Having helped place as many as 200 female directors since then, Hurvenes, 49, has been asked to speak on the issue in countries as far flung as Jordan, South Korea, Australia and Brazil. Last week, she answered questions from ForbesWoman.
ForbesWoman: France recently followed Norway and introduced a quota bill. Are any other countries considering legislation?
Other countries, like Spain, have taken a different approach--making a recommendation for "equal representation" of men and women. Will that work?
My guess is there is not going to be a significant raise in the number of women on boards unless the government has offered Spanish companies new measures and incentives to assist them in recruiting women to board positions. Telling companies to fix something they may not perceive as a problem may have no effect. Ansgar Gabrielsen, the minister behind the quota law in Norway, told chairmen and company owners here that he would not legislate if he saw significant improvements over a two-year period. Nothing happened, so the legislation was passed.
On the other hand, didn't Sweden reject a quota law a few years ago?
Yes, they were going to legislate but dropped the plans after seeing the controversy that followed the Norwegian legislation. But, unlike Norway, Sweden has a strong line of women investors, both heiresses and women wealthy in their own right, who serve on the boards of companies they invest in and that helps. The Swedes currently have about 23% women on their boards, which is well above the European average. A quota law requires a huge amount of political guts and few have the appetite for it.
What can women do in countries where legislation is unlikely to push for greater representation on boards?
Many simply have no idea how to go about becoming a non-executive director, and for the vast majority, contacting a couple of headhunters is not enough. They have to start building the networks they need, put themselves out there and work hard to raise their own profile.
I believe we'll also see a push from investors and chairmen who believe diversity at board level is good for business. Recent research by McKinsey found that gender-balanced teams outperformed all-male and all-female teams on return on equity, operating costs and share price. Intrigued by this, they then measured on everything they could think of. And again, gender-balanced teams outperformed single gender counterparts on all accounts.
The U.S., where women comprise only about 15% of directors, is unlikely to enact quotas. Do you have any advice for women here?
Yes. Don't sit around and wait for divine intervention. Realize you are on your own and make it known to everyone in your network that you are ready, qualified and keen to take on a non-executive director role. Spend some time thinking about what type of company, size, sector and board role you feel ready to take on. Define the skills and abilities you will bring to a board and how will you be able to contribute, and then articulate it. I cannot stress enough the importance of making yourself known to the people who influence board composition: chairmen, investors, CEOs and nomination committees.
Also, be prepared to start somewhere. Few people, men or women, go straight onto a FTSE100 or Fortune 500 board. Learning the ropes on the board of a smaller company will stand you on good ground later. To quote one of the chairmen I work with, "It is hard to bring to the top table someone who's never set foot in a boardroom."
Why are top male executives so surprised that qualified women exist?
If there are no women in the top management of their own company, it's easy to assume accomplished women don't exist. A Norwegian chairman told me after attending the Professional Boards Forum, "I'm 63. The women I know are my wife's girlfriends and, like her, they've stayed at home. I can't ask any of them to serve on my board."
You receive e-mails from all over the world--what are women saying?
I get e-mails of thanks and encouragement, but also of frustration and irritation, particularly from women who feel they've been effectively locked out of the boardroom by tradition, lack of visibility and, surprisingly, by headhunters who act as gatekeepers.
One very smart and ambitious woman was fuming when a headhunter told her to come back once she'd got her first directorship through her own network--only then would they be interested in helping her.
I also had an e-mail recently from a woman who, having been seated next to a senior chairman at a charity gala said she "probably bored him to death with my board ambitions" but a few months later got a call to serve on one of his subsidiary boards.
You initially opposed Norway's quota law; what made it work better than you expected?
In 2002, our corporate boards were 6% women. Now we have 45%. If the legislation was removed tomorrow, would we revert back to 6%? Not in a million years! And that's the acid test, I suppose.