Changes proposed to Equal Status Act

The Norwegian Ministry of Children and Family Affairs put forward a proposal in October 1999 to change the Equal Status Act. Among the proposals to be considered by the relevant parties is a minimum requirement with regard to both sexes being represented on the boards of private and public enterprises.

In October 1999, the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs issued a proposal to change the Equal Status Act (Likestillingsloven), the 1978 legislation relating to equal status between the sexes. The proposal, which is intended to improve gender equality in Norway, is now being considered by the relevant bodies, and they have until spring 2000 to give their opinions.

The purpose of the Equal Status Act is to promote equal status between the sexes, and in particular to improve the position of women. The Act states that women and men shall be given equal opportunities in education, employment and cultural and professional advancement. However, the regulatory bodies established by the Act are not to deal with gender equality matters regarding family life and purely personal matters.

The Ministry's proposal

The Ministry calls for changes to the Act in several areas, as follows.

Gender representation on boards

The Equal Status Act requires each sex to have at least 40% of all representatives on public councils and boards. The Ministry now proposes extending these provisions to apply to the boards of directors of all fully state-owned enterprises, and enterprises in which the state has a majority ownership. It further points to the fact that women are still poorly represented on boards in private and semi-public enterprises, and wants feedback from relevant bodies on the possible incorporation of provisions concerning gender representation on the boards of private enterprises. The initial suggestion is a 25% representation requirement applicable to both sexes, with the possibility of a gradual increase to 40%. The department suggests a time span of six to 10 years for the implementation of this provision. Provisions concerning the composition of boards could be incorporated into the Equal Status Act or the Norwegian Companies Act (Aksjeloven), and would be applicable to boards with more than three members.

Equal pay

The present Act stipulates that both sexes should receive equal pay for work of equal value. So far, this rule has been applied only to work of an apparent similar nature and, for the purpose of comparison, only to work which is within the same enterprise. The Ministry proposes extending the interpretation of "equal value" to cover most occupations across professional and collective agreement boundaries, but does not want to allow comparative valuations that cut across enterprise or company boundaries. The term "equal value" must be defined, according to the Ministry, through a "total appraisal in which the emphasis is on those skills necessary to execute the work, as well as other factors such as work load/strain, responsibility and working conditions". The basic argument is that the present restrictions make the Act in many ways useless as a legal instrument in cases where pay discrimination come as a result of different valuation of typical female and male occupations. The Ministry also believes this to contravene the framework of EU equality law.

Mandatory reporting on gender equality issues

The Ministry proposes making it mandatory for enterprises to include matters concerning equal status between men and women in their annual reports. The reports would have to include information about measures taken within the enterprise to enhance gender equality. At present, there is a similar rule on reporting on working environment measures.

Increased focus on gender equality in collective agreements

The Ministry further proposes to allow the Gender Equality Board of Appeals to express its opinion on the legality of collective agreements vis-à-vis the Equal Status Act. However, the authority to determine the legality of collective agreements would still remain with the Industrial Disputes Court. The belief is that the Board's opinion may contribute to highlighting collective agreements with a poor record with regard to gender equality.

Commentary

The main elements of the proposals to alter the Equal Status Act were made public in August 1999, after the media and researchers had brought attention to the fact that female representation on boards and in top management is generally low. This is also the case for companies owned by the state, such as Telenor and Statoil.

The Ministry's proposal would involve a significant strengthening of the present legal framework, and will beyond doubt meet opposition in several quarters. The most controversial issue is that of extending the regulations concerning a pro rata gender distribution to apply to boards of private enterprises as well as semi-public enterprises. The Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry (Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon, NHO) was quick to distance itself from this proposal. Kristin Clemet, a vice-director at NHO, argues that this is problematic both in relation to workers' and shareholders' participation on boards (quoted in the Dagens Næringsliv newspaper on 12 August). The trade unions have yet to comment on the proposal, but it is not unreasonable to assume that it will receive a mixed reception. Employees have the right to elect up to a third of board representatives in companies with more than 50 employees (TN9809201S), and the proposal would cover all board representatives, including those elected by the employees. Furthermore, there is no consensus about statutory proportional gender distribution within the trade union movement, and the ambition to introduce it for the elected leadership of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) has so far not received support.

The goal of increasing the share of women in leading positions has broad support in principle in most quarters. Several large enterprises in the public and private sector have an express goal of increasing the ratio of women in leading positions, and some of them have initiated their own programmes to recruit more women in these positions. Furthermore, NHO has taken measures to increase women's share in leading positions among its member enterprises. Disagreement is first and foremost centred around the extent to which voluntary measures are sufficient, or whether legal measures are necessary.

Another proposal that may meet opposition is that of extending the Equal Status Act to apply to cases of wage discrimination resulting from an unequal valuation of female- and male-dominated occupations. The issue has been debated several times in wage settlements, and large female-dominated groups within the health sector argue that their occupations are rated lower than comparable male occupations. In the public sector, the possibility of comparing different occupations will be even greater, since the term "enterprise" gains a much larger dimension by the sheer size of municipal and state administrations. Again the main controversy will be the extent to which a levelling of incomes is to be achieved voluntarily, which means through wage negotiations, or through legislation. (Kristine Nergaard, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science)

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