Monday, May 26, 2008

Diversity in diversity management

You may remember that in one of our posts last month we asked what exactly made women different in a business ethics context. One of the big issues here is the "glass ceiling"that hinders women from getting to the top of the corporate ladder. Discrimination is often invisible but incontrovertible to those that encounter it.

To be sure, this is a problem faced by women everywhere, but at the same time, such institutional discrimination also varies quite significantly between countries. In our business ethics book, we reported on evidence of female held directorships in Europe - where female representation in the boardroom ranged from 0% in Portugal to 29% in Norway. So it was with some interest that we read in the Financial Times last week about evidence emerging of female board memberships in the Gulf region - an area not traditionally known as a leader in diversity management.

The picture painted by the report is of a region that, in terms of diversity management, demonstrates much like Europe quite a bit of, well ...diversity. Some Gulf countries are actually emerging as leaders in the region, with women making up 2.7 per cent of boards in Kuwait, and 3% in Oman. This not only compares favourably to other Gulf states, such as Abu Dhabi (0.6%) and Saudi Arabia (0.1%), but also stacks up pretty well against other ostensibly less conservative countries such as Italy (2%) and Japan (0.4%).

Of course, board memberships do not tell the whole story about gender discrimination in business, but it certainly gives a good flavour of the types of challenges facing women looking to secure advancement to the executive suite. So it's good to see some progress being made in the Gulf, and hopefully will act as a further spur for laggard countries in Europe and elsewhere. Who knows, perhaps even Italy's womanizing PM, Silvio Berlusconi will be able to prompt a greater attention to gender among Italy's boardrooms, especially having appointed the former model and (as the media puts it "ex-showgirl") Mara Carfagna, as Equal Opportunities Minister (pictured right).

But whatever progress is made in Italy or Kuwait, though, such countries
will still remain far, far behind the leaders in female board membership. Right now, the place to go for high flying women is Norway, where women now make up 40% of board positions. But we're not talking voluntary social responsibility here; Norway's female friendly pattern is a result of good old fashioned regulation. As the International Herald Tribune reported a couple of months ago, it's not been a easy transition for Norway, but with appropriate mentoring, training schemes, support mechanisms and enforcement, a genuine change in attitudes seems to have accompanied the 2003 law that forced Norwegian companies to fill 40% of board seats with women. Such positive discrimination isn't always popular, but as the chart from the IHT shows, it certainly makes a difference.


  1. It was great to meet you and to hear you talk on Thursday, Dirk, and I totally agreed with your additional comment to my twaddle-laden answer to that last question from the floor. Interesting data on Norway and Sweden board membership by gender. Even more interesting from my perspective, is the failure of initiatives in both countries to get more women into permanent university positions in science in the last 10 years. Why the difference do you think?
    dawn bazely, Biology & IRIS, York U, Toronto

  2. Hi Dawn,
    yea, i really enjoyed the Q&A and the teamwork between scholars from quite different backgrounds seemed to work really well!
    as to increasing the number of women in senior positions - i think that this works only with strong institutions - i.e. laws. i am not too enthusiastic about all that voluntary stuff, corporations come up with. one of the reasons why science is still problematic could be that quotas might be particularly difficult to implement in an university context. after all, the positions here are awarded due to 'objective' performance criteria, such as publications. Generally, i find that academia is particularly hard for women in some sense, as it is normally quite underinstitutionalized and taking a break for kids puts women out of the game in a much stronger way than would be the case in industry. I co-authored a book with a female colleague during her having her second child - and i must say that i really admired her discipline in juggling these two worlds. i am not sure if i could pull this off... i also noticed that despite maternity leave etc. many Heads of Departments, Deans etc. (informally - no one says these things officially) are pretty suspicious and derogatory of younger female academics who take maternity leave, say, more than once. Schulich/York is a nice exception here, some of the most senior colleagues here are women, but in the other countries i have worked, this often came up. Anyway, an interesting issue to mull on...


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