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Wanting This And That

By Amrita Nandy-Joshi

28 April, 2006

2006 has been inaugurated with cheering cries and hurrahs. Well, the gaiety was not just to do with the arrival of a brand new year and the usual confetti parties. It has even lasted well beyond a night’s ‘spirited’ celebrations. This calendar year has brought along momentous signs for optimism and comfort—the victory of women as heads of nations in Chile and Liberia, quick on the heels of Angela Merkel’s win in the German national elections towards the fag end of 2005. Besides women gaining political power, there has been another bit of news that deserves standing ovation—the radical move by Norway’s government to ensure that in the next two years, forty percent of the board members of the country’s large, publicly traded private companies be women. And there’s more…the penalty for nonconformity is the disbandment of the defaulting corporation.

Kudos! From the parliament to corporate boardrooms, women’s greater entry into erstwhile male bastions can be assured by such measures. It is said that in expectation of the law taking effect, the past couple of years have seen the number of women in Norwegian corporate boards double up—from roughly 8 percent to 16 percent. However, reports state that not everyone clapped to this piece of news. The Norwegian government is said to have resisted strong opposition from many Norwegian businessmen. Perhaps it is such hostility towards the idea of women’s presence in businesses that forced the government to pass a law, since voluntary measures to increase their representation in business had failed. (The Norwegian Gender Equality Act was adopted way back in 1978 and prohibits all discrimination on the grounds of gender and is applicable to all areas of society. Part of the Act was the establishment of a Gender Equality Ombud, an independent body responsible for enforcing the Act, free of charge. Moreover, the government-funded Gender Equality Centre too has attempted to monitor, promote and mainstream gender equality and equal opportunity measures in all areas of society). Interestingly enough, statistics suggest that some 40 percent of students at Norway's business schools are women! Clearly, men’s corporate club had long built a strong glass ceiling which could only be broken by a law such as this. Of course, such ceilings are a truism outside Norway as well.

Though the merits of such a law cannot be overstated, the corridors that lead women into the board rooms are still paved with speed-breakers—some smooth, others rough, many intangible. The work place continues to be designed for men. The hours and its demands of single-minded devotion sideline other roles that women might want to play such as motherhood (yet another task that asks for total time and attention).

One still has to come at the price of the other. Female labour-force participation rates might have increased while marriage and fertility rates decreased. Causality or correlation, the two do interconnect and interact. High-powered careers might have forced many accomplished women to opt out of their sparkling careers to make a dash for marriage, family (lest biological deadlines be missed), and eventually, happiness outside work. Though the number of women graduates, MBAs, lawyers and doctors have risen in the last few decades, what has not changed are the ambivalent pressures acting on women’s minds.

The ‘superwoman’ myth is as active as ever, nurtured by a market-friendly media. What is needed are genuinely family-friendly policies. Parental leave, family services, etc. have eased the strife a bit but their palpable efficacy has been questioned. They are primarily geared towards working women, thereby creating incentives for women to shift from the informal labour of child care and household management to paid employment, thus taking one further away from the goal of quality life. The early years of childhood are critical for social and cognitive development but a late start in working life lessens the likelihood of rising to the top of the ladder, especially in high-demand careers of business.

Performing equally well at both the ends of the work-family continuum has always been an extraordinarily challenging task. So, while head-hunting firms get busy looking for suitable women board members for Norway’s approximately 519 private corporations, some heed should also be paid to the trade-offs of pursuing two different callings in life, of the legitimate desire and demand of wanting this and that.









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