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The Norway Experiment

Like everybody else, we’re just coming down off election fever and moving into the next stage of the American story. The traditional boundaries of leadership have been transcended, and we’re amazed by the way people are getting engaged in public life. We’re confident that this will result in a new diversity in the government and administration.

Corporate America could use a dose of this diversity. Among Fortune 500 companies, only 2% of CEOs are women, and their boards have only 10% women. Research by Catalyst shows that companies with more diverse leadership get better financial results.  So why the resistance to change?

You can see the parallels in the Jewish community. In meeting rooms, professionals and volunteers fret about the decline of these organizations. But are they making the connection between the loss of influence and money and the lack of diversity in leadership and senior management? With 75% women staffing these organizations, how can there be so few women at the top? 

Maybe it’s time for the Norway Experiment.   

In 2002, Asnager Garnelson, Trade and Industry Minister, scanned corporate boards and saw that the percentage of women had stalled at 6%.  A former businessman, he knew how board members were picked. "They came from the same small circle of people," he said. "They go hunting and fishing together." Garnelson led the effort to diversify Norway’s boards, not for the noble cause of helping women, but because he believed that diversity creates wealth.

By 2003, Norway passed a law requiring all companies to fill 40% of board seats with women by 2008. The law was called "completely ridiculous" by the business community and, they predicted, impossible to enforce. In 2006, as companies continued to resist, Karita Bekkemellem, Minister of Equality, threatened to close down companies that did not comply.

The result: As of the 2008 deadline, all 500 companies on the Oslo stock exchange now have 40% women on their boards.  Since the Jewish community has shown little appetite for setting goals and making progress on women’s leadership, maybe now is the time to exert some pressure, in the Norwegian style.  Because it really makes sense to enlist everyone’s point of view, women and men, in drafting the roadmap to change.

Shifra Bronznick and Didi Goldenhar co-authors of Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life, are guest blogging on Jewcy this week with their co-author Marty Linsky. Stay tuned.

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