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Norway's gender quota law has made boards more professional: state fund boss

OSLO (Reuters) - Norway’s law requiring at least 40 percent of public limited company board members to be women has made the panels more professional and globally focused, the head of its largest domestic-focused investment fund said on Monday.

Folketrygdfondet managing director Olaug Svarva presents year 2011 financial results in Oslo February 29, 2012. REUTERS/Berit Roald/NTB Scanpix

In 2003 Norway became the first country in the world to impose a gender quota, requiring nearly 500 firms, including 175 firms listed on the Oslo bourse, to raise the proportion of women on their boards to 40 percent.

“The nomination committees work in a different way than they did before. They do a more thorough job,” Olaug Svarva, managing director of Folketrygdfondet, told the Reuters Nordic Investment Summit.

The penalty for not complying was drastic: if a company did not comply, it would be shut down. At the time the move caused an uproar in the Norwegian business community, but firms complied.

Other countries - including France, Malaysia, Belgium, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain - followed suit in order to break the glass ceiling preventing women from reaching top business positions.

“You had to look more thoroughly to find females. This started a more professional process,” said Svarva, who is also the head of the corporate assembly and the election committee at Statoil, the largest company in the Nordics.

Another effect has been that nomination committees have looked outside Norway’s borders in the search for suitable candidates. “Boards have become more global,” she said.

State-owned Folketrygdfondet, which has some $25 billion under management, invests mostly in Norwegian bonds and stocks, including all the major companies in the country such as Statoil STL.OL and telecoms group Telenor TEL.OL.

It also has investments in the other Nordic countries, accounting for some 15 percent of its portfolio. It is separate from Norway’s $780-billion sovereign wealth fund which invests exclusively in stocks, bonds and property outside Norway.

Separately, Svarva said that investors should expect more Norwegian companies to go public in the near future as they search for capital to grow their business.

Editing by Jeremy Gaunt