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Major Swedish companies seek more women leaders

Major Swedish companies seek more women leaders

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, Photo: Peter Jönsson

The cold facts show there is a long way to go before there is total equality between men and women in Swedish working life. So when CEOs from ten of Sweden’s largest companies launched the equality drive ‘Battle of the numbers’, there was a lot of interest.

On 17 January one hundred women from ten major companies came to Kulturhuset in central Stockholm. It was time for their first meeting and workshop as part of the project ‘Battle of the numbers’. The meeting was closed to outsiders and the media. A sign on the window explained what was going on: ‘Sorry for any inconvenience, we are refurnishing Swedish industry’.

The women, ten from each company, represent Ericsson, H&M, Ikea, Saab, Sandvik, Scania, SEB, SPP, SSAB and Volvo AB. They are leaders or soon-to-be leaders and have been chosen by their group’s management to spend a year being internal management consultants within their companies and to identify best practice which will help more women reach executive and decision-making positions. Their own experiences form the basis of their work. With the support of their group’s management, they will scrutinise and systemise their experiences and hopefully these will become a force for change. The companies‘ heads of HR and information together with the CEOs will also meet during this time. The idea is for them to benchmark against each other and to find good examples of how companies can work with the issue in their daily work and how to integrate this into the way the company is run. The aim is to find more methods to lift women into executive roles, and in November this year the project will finish with a large event which will showcase the results and good examples. 

The background is the well recognised numbers which show what a bad state gender equality is in at higher levels in large companies. There is often focus on the 16 percent female representation in listed companies’ board rooms. 

“We wanted to shift the focus from how many women are sitting on boards to women’s chances of getting into managerial positions. CEOs are often blamed for not having enough women on their boards, but that is a question for the boards. When we contacted CEOs to start work with leaders we met them on a level where they have influence,” says Sofia Falk, founder of the Wiminvest company and one of the three women who got all of the ten

FalckCEOs interested in supporting the project.

The motive for the ten CEO’s who have joined the project can be found in a comment piece in the newspaper Dagens Industri on 21 November 2012: ‘This is how Swedish women will reach the top’. In it, the ten CEOs explained why they were supporting the ‘Battle of the numbers’ campaign. It is about profitability and competitiveness and it is about being able to recruit and keep hold of top talents.

 “We know that the fight talents will be tough in just a few years from now. And research shows that equal opportunity companies have higher turnovers and that young, talented people will not choose companies which don’t have the right set of values. Many of today’s organisations were created a hundred years ago, but they need to start reflecting today’s society,” says Sofia Falk. 

Took up a loan

Sofia Falk’s own story plays a role in all this. The way her company Wiminvest gets more women into higher positions is being used as an example in the workshops, which play a main part in the ‘Battle of the numbers’ project. It is a method which partly springs out of her own experience. 

In the middle of her political science studies in Uppsala while in her early twenties she changed course and signed up for national service in order to become a military intelligence officer. She was already extremely fit and often did very well as the only woman among many men. Her good results were often explained by the men as ‘luck’. Little by little she began working with crisis and risk management for companies, often on a high level. More than once when she turned up to start work she was asked “where is the consultant who is coming to help us?”

“I started talking to other women and understood that this was everyday life for most women in higher positions. I got angry. I was young, clever and exhausted. I felt we women were not given the chance to have a career on our own terms, and that kills both your passion and creativity,” says Sofia Falk. 

The women act as management consultants

She changed jobs and became a PR consultant, and saw that attitudes were the same there - if not worse. She finally decided enough was enough. She wanted to start a company to help talented women get a company career on their own terms and to help them reach their full potential. She quit her job, borrowed 200,000 kronor (€24,000), made 100 phone calls, visited 53 companies and after two months she had 12 customers in major Swedish companies. 

Together with clients and some of Sweden’s best known consultants on leadership, change, communication, business development and personal development she created the work procedure she has been using ever since in her company Wiminvest. With the help of focus groups she found out what women in leadership positions needed in order to create a career on their own terms. 

What did they think was expected from themselves, their bosses and the organisation’s leadership in order for them to reach their full potential and to get them to want to reach leadership positions in the company? It was and remains the women’s own experiences in a company which are used to find out what the career choices are, what pays and how, which obstacles there are and so on. The women become strategic advisors in their own organisations for how these should be organised, run and led in order to reflect today’s society.

“The women use themselves as a knowledge base. How did they get to where they are and can they go further?” explains Sofia Falk. 

During their four workshops the women create suggestions for changes which could be about initiative, activities, routines and processes. The suggestions should accelerate the drive towards the goal of getting more women into leadership positions and they should be implementable within six to twelve months. Together with the participating companies’ group leaderships they will then continue to work with the suggestions. It is crucial that the leadership actively supports the project and is prepared to act on the suggestions put forward by the women. Just sitting in the leadership group and simply saying thank you for a ‘cute’ presentation is not OK. The leadership’s active support is a precondition for Wiminvest’s work and also for the ongoing ‘Battle of the numbers‘ project. 

Opinion building

Since the birth of the company in 2007 she has got more and more commissions. She has also been working with opinion building and has been an advisor to the government. Last year she was asked to host a pre-seminar for the Northern Future Forum with 150 Swedish female bosses, the Minister for Gender Equality and the Minister for Enterprise. The aim was to create a knowledge base which could be shared with state leaders in the Nordic region, the Baltics and the UK. The seminar also welcomed Cissi Elwin Frenckel, the publisher of the monthly magazine Chef, and Eva Swartz Grimaldi from Blanchi café and cycles. Three women with different experiences and positions but with large networks and a burning desire to create a business environment open to women all the way to the top - they all found each other through their shared desire and decided to take the lead. They saw that there were already many things being done within companies which never saw the light of day.

“It’s a ragged debate but more is being done to promote equality within companies than what comes out. We wanted to highlight the good examples,” says Sofia Falk.  

They contacted a range of companies and got positive responses from those listed above. The initiative has created a lot of interest, including from the Swedish Minister for Gender Equality, Maria Arnholm, who in several interviews has pointed to ‘Battle of the numbers’ as a good example of how to work towards improved gender equality.

Through her work Sofia Falk has noticed a reluctance to pursue legislation and quotas. She has also worked with Norwegian companies and doubts the Norwegian quota system for company boards is having the right effect.

“The aim becomes to reach a certain number and when that aim is reached you risk that people start ignoring the issue. You also loose internal role models when women on an operational level become board members. Equality is about how you organise and run things, and it is about attitudes and assessments,” says Sofia Falk.

100 women in charge of change

On 20 november 2012 ten CEOs from some of Sweden’s largest companies -  Ericsson, Scania, SEB, H&M, IKEA, pensions company SPP, Saab, SSAB, Sandvik and Volvo - launched the project ‘Battles of the numbers’.

Ten women from each company who hold key positions on various levels and in various company areas will spend the next year working as internal management consultants within their respective companies. They will use their experiences to carefully study what makes women like themselves reach executive and decision-making positions. They will look at how the leadership roles are constructed, the shape of incentives and reward systems, how women are held up as role models, career paths, structures for feedback and views of parental leave.    

The aim is to improve women’s chances to enter leadership positions. The one hundred women will meet at workshops four times in the coming year to exchange experiences. The results of their work, which is being carried out in cooperation with the group leaderships, will be presented during a conference in November 2013.

The initiative was taken by Sofia Falk, the founder of Wiminvest, Cissi Elwin, editor in chief for the monthly magazine Chef and Eva Swartz Grimaldi from Blanchi café and cycles. 


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