STOCKHOLM/OSLO/COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - When it comes to equality at home and in the political arena, Nordic countries have long outperformed the rest of the world. But a look at their blue-chip companies reveals a gaping hole in the picture.
Of nearly 100 publicly traded Nordic companies - a list of global names that ranges from Danish brewer Carlsberg and fashion retailer H&M - only one, Swedish bank SEB, has a woman at its helm.
It’s the “Anders” effect, says Sweden’s AllBright Foundation, whose annual report on gender equality in Sweden found that Anders was the most common name at management level.
“Anders recruits Anders who recruits Anders,” said Amanda Lundeteg, AllBright chief executive. “They think, hey Anders is a nice fella - we can golf, talk football and ‘bada bastu’ (swim and sauna). He reminds me of me.”
Such a situation may seem hard to grasp in a region that gave women the vote in the early 1900s, rolled out gender quotas in politics in the 1970s and legalized shared parental leave in order to see fathers out pushing prams as often as mothers.
Some senior executives say it’s partly down to the fact that Nordic industry is still skewed toward male-dominated sectors such as oil, mining and manufacturing, where women have long struggled to make headway.
Others suggest it’s because parental leave legislation does not insist that fathers take as much leave as mothers.
But Adam Price, who created the hit political drama series Borgen, says it’s simply because the same commitment to increase opportunities for women has not extended from other areas into the corporate world.
“In politics, it’s high on the agenda to have equal numbers of each sex. That is not the case when you go into the more closed corridors of business,” said Price, whose series followed the character Birgitte Nyborg as she became Denmark’s first female prime minister.
Denmark and Norway really do have female prime ministers today. On top of that, Nordic countries now boast the highest percentage of female parliamentarians in the world - 40 to 45 percent - and the most female ministers.
Statistics for the world of business barely compare.
The proportion of female CEOs at companies listed on the main Nordic bourses is one percent - below the already paltry EU average of three percent. In the United States, women make up five percent of Fortune 500 firms, Catalyst data shows.
Even smaller Nordic firms with 50-500 employees underperform Europe, Grant Thornton research shows. Only 12 percent of their CEOs or managing directors are female, compared with a rate of 17 percent for the EU.
Part of the reason women in Nordic business do not climb so high can be attributed to the same factors that keep them out of boardrooms in other parts of the world: a lack of targeted support and coaching to build their confidence and ability in targeting executive or boardroom level jobs.
But that situation is exacerbated in Denmark, Sweden and Norway by the fact that women still prefer to make their careers in the public rather than the private sector, in what are still seen as traditionally female areas like healthcare and education, government data shows.
Harald Norvik, a former Statoil CEO, said more women were moving now into a wider section of industries, something which needed to continue in order to widen the pool of potential top management candidates.
“We do see many women in media, in banking and in insurance. We see fewer in heavy industries as oil and chemicals,” said Norvik, who is now deputy chairman of seismic firm Petroleum Geo-Services and member of the board of ConocoPhillips.
“There are few female CEOs mainly because few females have been a long time in line (management) positions,” he said.
Women who do go into the private sector often shorten their chances of making it to interviews for the top jobs by working in areas like human resources, communications and marketing, which do not typically yield CEO or board candidates, noted AllBright’s Lundeteg.
One thing that working women in Nordic countries do not have to worry about is generous paid parental leave: Sweden offers up to 480 days compared to Britain’s 273 days and Spain’s 112 days.
However data suggests ‘parental’ leave is still largely ‘maternal’ leave - in 2013 in Sweden women used 75 percent of it, showing traditional expectations of gender roles are still kicking in post-childbirth.
So long as that’s the case, such generous legislation may be setting women back, says Jon Pareliussen, who works for the OECD.
While women are at home, men are honing their skills and receiving important training and workplace development that gives them an advantage, he explained.
“Parental leave, when it gets too long, it’s a problem,” he said, noting that Britain, Spain and Italy have a greater percentage of working women with managerial responsibilities than Sweden.
Stine Bosse, former CEO of Danish insurer TrygVesta - now benchmark Copenhagen 20 firm Tryg - says governments ought to force 50/50 shared parental leave.
“Then, when they benchmark women against men at workplaces. they can’t say ‘She’s 27, she has not had children yet, we’ll go with the guy’,” Bosse said.
Yet in areas where numbers have been enforced by law, women are still failing to get ahead.
In Norway, the first country to insist that 40 percent of public limited company board members be female, those boards are still not appointing more female chief executives.
Marit Hoel, head of the Center for Corporate Diversity in Oslo, says there is no evidence female chairs appoint female CEOs. Once on a board many women are careful not to push the matter too much, she pointed out.
“They want to be seen as anyone else - not as someone who wants to push a single-issue political agenda,” she said.
Lena Wennberg became Sweden’s first female CEO of a listed company - media group Sydsvenska Dagbladet AB - in 1987. She is against quotas and thinks change will filter through naturally when the men currently sitting on company boards are replaced by the next generation who have grown up with equality.
“Those who sit on the boards are the men who made their careers 20 or 30 years ago. When they leave, they will be replaced by men who have changed their children’s nappies.”
As an alternative to another generation of waiting, Annika Falkengren suggests that Nordic countries improve training and support for women in corporate careers.
“I think one should put pressure on making sure more women are operational at very high levels because then they can easily be elected for boards,” Falkengren, who runs Swedish bank SEB, told Reuters.
Anita Krohn Traaseth, former head of Hewlett-Packard Norway, agrees.
“What you need to do is to build the talent pool within an organization,” said Traaseth - who is also the author of a best-selling business memoir called “Good Enough for the Bastards”.
Additional reporting by Johan Sennero and Helena Soderpalm in Stockholm; Editing by Sophie Walker