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International Business Report (IBR)

Why isn’t female political leadership translating to the boardroom?

Francesca Lagerberg

Francesca Lagerberg asks what we can learn from intelligent, dynamic women in Danish television drama, Borgen

Denmark has made some fantastic television dramas over the past few years. ‘The Killing’ and ‘Borgen’ have been compulsive viewing in the Lagerberg household. Both place intelligent, strident women as the main characters and, in the case of political drama, Borgen, imitate life itself by prophetically telling the tale of a female Prime Minister – Helle Thorning-Schmidt becoming the first Prime Minister of Denmark in 2011.

It is more than a little surprising then, that a country which in politics and popular entertainment has women in starring roles, has so few women in senior positions in their businesses. Denmark ranks top – or perhaps that should be bottom – of  the ‘no women in senior management’ global rankings. According to our annual women in business report, a staggering 71% of Danish businesses have no women in senior positions. 

So why are people in a country that happily votes for a female leader and, in large numbers, watches female leads on TV, so reticent about women running their businesses?

Unfortunately Denmark is not alone. Germany, where Angela Merkel is Chancellor, fares little better with 67% of businesses having no women in a senior role. In Germany there has been little progress over the past ten years since Merkel took office. In fact the percentage of women making it to senior positions has dropped from 16% to 12%. In Denmark the improvement has been negligible, rising from only 13% to 14% over the past seven years. Contrast this with China and Russia. Both are staunchly led by men, but fewer than 5% of companies have no women in senior positions.

Alarmingly neither Germany nor Denmark looks likely to make much progress anytime soon. In Denmark only 5% of businesses intend to hire or promote women into senior management over the next 12 months. The figure in Germany is only 3%. This compares to a global average of 14%.

German policy makers are taking direct action. Legislation has been passed stipulating that 30% of board positions of companies listed on the DAX must be filled by women by 2016. A number of German business leaders are claiming that women of requisite experience and skill are simply not available, and a few specialist multinationals might have a point. But in a society where two-thirds of businesses have a complete absence of females from their leadership teams, how are these women supposed to gain this experience or hone these skills?

There’s a rationale for quotas when the issue is so persistent. After all, the Merkels and Thorning-Schmidts of this world are notable mainly for their rarity. Perhaps we expect too much of these female leaders; that they can open some sort of gate and let everyone in. A quota can be the nudge to create more widespread change. But this will only be sustainable if supported by other measures that address some of the fundamental issues. 

Yes, of course we need to help women by ensuring childcare is available and affordable, but importantly we must improve mentoring for women to help them get to senior positions.  We also need to ensure companies recruit from pools of male and female graduates in equal amounts – globally just a fifth of graduates currently being recruited are women. Perhaps by addressing the facts, women in senior positions might seem less like fiction.

is global leader for tax services at Grant Thornton