Gender Equality

Norwegian Business School President claims gender equality has been achieved

“Women haven’t been discriminated against, they just haven’t been qualified. That’s why it’s taken so long to reach a critical mass of women in business leadership. That’s why it’s both natural and right that the number of women managers has only recently started to grow.”

Rector (President) Tom Colbjørnsen of the BI Norwegian Business School takes this position in a recent op-ed piece in the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv, firing a flaming salvo across the bow of the Norwegian gender equality superliner.

Part of the explanation he sees for the increase in women leaders is that punishment for discrimination is now much more severe. Fewer men therefore engage in discrimination, and more jobs are thereby available for women, as he puts it.

But this cannot be the primary reason for the change, Colbjørnsen argues. The recruitment of candidates for leadership positions has not shown any “inappropriate bypassing” of women, he claims, before asserting that “male and female managers have more or less equal opportunities for promotion once they’ve started their leadership career.”

President Colbjørnsen obviously hasn’t been reading my blog.

Discrimination is not about men explicitly deciding not to hire women. It’s about subconscious decisions and distinctions. In psychological studies, otherwise identical files are evaluated differently depending on whether the name at the top is that of a man or a woman. If you add to the profile that the woman is a mother, the applicant is held to a higher standard than men or women without children — and let’s not get started on the career benefits that accrue to men with children. From my perspective, this is “inappropriate bypassing” in the hiring and promotion process.

As for the assertion of equal opportunities for promotion, the most recent Women Matter report from McKinsey&Company is instructive. On the basis of research in 235 European companies, McKinsey concludes that men in middle management are 1.8 times more likely to be promoted than their female counterparts. At the Vice President level, the difference is about the same. But from the next highest level to the level of CEO, men are fully five times more likely than women to be promoted. And even in Norway, there are significant differences in promotion rates.

In addition to his rather dubious core claims, Colbjørnsen rounds off his op-ed article with a series of comments so odd that they are best left to speak for themselves. Keep in mind that the context is why women haven’t made it to the top until recently.

“Leadership [involves] working through one’s colleagues. It requires relationship skills, the ability to communicate clear expectations and the ability to involve colleagues without abdicating responsibility. A leader must learn ‘how we do things here,’ not necessarily to preserve it, but to handle it competently. In that context they have to understand how much they can lead from above and how much they can and should delegate. They must know their own limitations and understand where they fall short such that others should be given responsibility. This cannot be learned in the classroom. It requires practical experience and personal maturation.

“For this reason, it is both natural and right that the percentage of women managers has only recently started to grow. The large numbers of women who finished degrees [in business] in the 1990s have needed these years to become qualified.”

Rather than starting a discussion about how slow women are to acquire relationship skills or the awareness of their own limitations, I ended my reply in the newspaper by challenging Colbjørnsen to host a meeting at the BI Norwegian Business School, bringing in international experts so that we could all learn more about this topic.

Here, I’ll close instead by offering the President’s comments as a reminder that even in the calm waters of Scandinavia, a ship’s ballast can be out of place.

[UPDATE: Dagens Næringsliv published my letter on April 24, 2012 in edited form; the challenge at the end, referred to above, was a victim of the red pen.]

Photo: norden

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more


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