Norway: Improving gender balance in management posts

While Norway has a good record on equal opportunities for women, the proportion of women in management is relatively low. A new report on the issue concludes that a gender-neutral approach rather than initiatives aimed at women only seems to be more successful in achieving gender balance.

Background and objectives

The World Economic Forum ranked Norway as the third highest country on its equal opportunity index in 2016. This, from a Norwegian perspective, is somewhat disappointing and is mainly due to the country’s lack of female managers. Introducing gender quotas on the boards of publicly limited companies was also meant to increase the proportion of female company managers. However, while the publicly limited companies rapidly adjusted to the legislation, an ILO report on women in management placed Norway 50th among 108 different countries for its percentage of female managers. Some 7% of top-level managers are women, with 20% at the next level and 30% at the one below that.

Gender quotas set by law and those set by local initiative at company level are two very different strategies. A recently published report from the Work Research Institute (AFI) in Oslo focuses on what can be done at company or workplace level to initiate a more gender-balanced management. The project was funded by the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO), the largest employer association in Norway’s private sector.

Several explanations have been offered for the paradox that while Norway is viewed as having an excellent record in terms of equal opportunities, it scores low on actual numbers of women in management. These opportunities include extended welfare state arrangements and a labour market divided by gender. The division is both hierarchical and by sector, as according to NHO, approximately two-thirds of men work in the private sector and two-thirds of women work in the public sector. The ‘glass ceiling’ effect, lack of personal drive or initiative, and women's family obligations are some of the theories offered to explain the paradox.


The aim of the AFI project was to review and assess gender-balancing initiatives in Norwegian enterprises in order to inform companies that want to improve their gender balance. The project did not question whether male and female managers act differently, but wanted to investigate how perceptions of male and female managers differ, through the different initiatives taken by companies.

Literature reviews on earlier initiatives, qualitative interviews (with 23 human resource (HR) managers), a quantitative survey (with 626 male and female managers) and case studies from 5 companies were used to investigate the success and failure of different measures. The case studies took place in Denmark and Sweden, while the interviews and the survey were aimed at Norwegians; Sweden and Denmark have a higher proportion of female managers than Norway.

Key findings

The quantitative survey showed that gender balance in top management is perceived as important: only 22% chose to answer ‘not at all/to a limited degree’ when asked if gender balance in top management was important for the company’s reputation. Some 75% were aware that their company had a clear goal of gender balance, with 61% reporting that initiatives had taken place.

These figures underline the need to evaluate the effect of the different initiatives. The researchers emphasise four different areas that are important for success:

  • action rather than deliberation;
  • gender balance initiatives as part of ongoing organisational change;
  • the role of management;
  • recruitment and inclusion.

Managers acknowledge the problem, but the activities and will to solve it vary.

The first point the report makes in this regard is to state ‘just do it’ – action is far more effective than thinking about the importance of gender balance, the normative basis or gender differences in decision-making or other possible gendered qualities.

Secondly, the researchers emphasised that gender-balancing measurement should be perceived as an organisational change, not as a side issue. Thus, company-specific features, resources and norms are important. Permanent gender balance requires a bureaucratic process in the best sense: goal-setting, systematic recruitment, training, continuous observation and follow-up measures and action plans. Gender balance is not a quick fix. Organisational changes and training are more important than statements about equal opportunity. The companies need to gather information on gender balance in different parts of the company and any possible changes over time. This is crucial for both identifying the gender challenge and goal-setting.

Thirdly, the attitude and actions of top management are also crucial. The report refers to them as ‘activists’ and stresses the importance of their consciousness on gender imbalance and their determination to act. HR managers are also important. They need to:

  • be systematic;
  • ensure that goals are set;
  • work methodically with different tools;
  • pay close attention to goal attainment.

It is important to make both the goals and the continuing results known throughout the company to maintain focus.

The recruitment and inclusion of women is the fourth point made by the report. Gender balance is important in all training and coaching activities. Companies need to make sure that women are visible both inside and outside the company. Initiatives like management rotation or ‘twinning’ were successful, the latter meaning that a senior (typically male) and a junior (typically female) manager share a position. Using periods of short- or long-term leave as an opportunity to replace the absent manager in question with someone from the level below was another successful tool. Recruitment is a key area. Gender-neutral recruitment procedures prevent thoughtless recruitment and may be achieved by always using two interviewers and by ensuring that men and women are included among the final candidates. To avoid men being the automatic choice, the researchers recommended that jobs should be advertised publicly.

The researchers also recommend establishing a gender-balanced pool of management talents; this enables a ready-made source of talent for internal advancement. For example, managers were asked to suggest or nominate candidates for the pool and, if only male candidates were named, the list was returned. Participants from various management training programmes were also included.

Initiatives aimed at diversity and without a gender-specific orientation were found to be more successful in creating gender balance. Having a limited number of management levels in the company and the size of the top management group (large) were also important factors.


Political regulations or voluntary initiatives to obtain gender balance at company level are two very different paths to equal opportunities. The Norwegian Gender Equality Act imposes ‘active, goal-oriented and systematic equal opportunity activities’ on company management, but the progress on gender balance in management has been slow. In 2009, 33% of all managers in Norway were female; five years later the figure was 36%. The AFI report offers an important insight into how companies might put gender balance on their agenda. Their recommendation is clear: gender balance measures are not for the short term. They must be embedded in the continuing organisational change and development that characterises modern companies. It is also important to note that a gender-neutral approach, rather than initiatives aimed at women only, seems to have a higher success rate.

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