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Gender equality at the top influences the entire organisation

Gender equality at the top influences the entire organisation

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, photo: Dan Coleman

“If we want to be a sustainable company we need mixed leadership groups on all levels. We have no credibility if we have only men in management. We also see how it has a positive influence on the entire organisation and that it has become more fun to work,” says Anette Segercrantz, head of human resources at Storebrand, which comprises the Swedish pensions provider and consultancy firm SPP.

The answer comes super quick. Yes, SPP would love to talk with the Nordic Labour Journal about ‘The Battle of the Numbers’ and its work on gender equality. ‘The Battle of the Numbers’ was a Swedish project running for a year from November 2012, aiming to get more women into operational leadership positions.

“We are very happy to talk about this, because we can see the dynamics which emerges from having balanced groups, and how well people work together,” says Anette Segercrantz, head of human resources at Storebrand.

Sara Skärvad, SPP’s head of press an PR, agrees. She has been project leader for the ten women how took part in ‘the Battle of the Numbers’, and she says it was an easy job.

“If you’re the project leader for ten leading women you easily become superfluous. But when we saw these ten fantastic women we really began thinking — “have we been neglecting them?”, says Sara Skärvad. 

Anette Segercrantz became SPP’s HR director in 2009, brought in by the then new CEO Sara Mc Phee. SPP is Sweden’s fourth largest fund manager, employs 500 people and has assets under management worth 140 billion Swedish kronor (€15.8bn). SPP is part of Norwegian Storebrand and Anette Segercrantz has been the HR director for the entire group since 2011. She works both in Stockholm and Oslo.

Sara Mc Phee was the first woman on SPP’s board of directors and Anette Segercrantz was the second. Both have been actively working to create a more equal gender division on a leadership level and in 2011 they reached 50/50 with some smaller variations over time. 

“We were asked to take part in ‘The Battle of the Numbers’ because we were role models. It was really great and we said yes immediately,” says Anette Segercrantz. 

They wanted to further their work towards a more equal gender division within the organisation and saw the possibilities offered by developing these issues together with colleagues in other big companies.

The starting point: women’s own experience

‘The Battle of the Numbers’ was a project where ten major companies, including SPP, spent a year working together to figure out what stops women reaching leading positions. How do you change a culture which hinders women reaching their goals and how do you find concrete ways of doing it? Another goal was to find measurable effects. After one year the experiences proved to be good and they are shared willingly

Ten women from each company were selected to take  part in ‘The Battles of the Numbers’ and Anette Segercrantz was one of the participants from SPP. Together with 99 other women from the ten big companies Ericsson, Scania, SEB, H&M, IKEA, pensions provider SPP, Saab, SSAB, Sandvik and Volvo, she has spent a year exploring gender equality issues in her workplace. Four joint workshops have allowed the participants to discuss, exchange experiences and identify obstacles and possible strategies for change, which later have resulted in concrete suggestions for change which have been presented to the respective group executive committees. The goal has been to get more women into operational leadership positions.

“It is so cool that you begin to talk about the issue and also that you work on different processes together. That means the group executive will also take the issue seriously and become more engaged. That is needed,” says Anette Segercrantz. 

The method centres on learning from the women’s own experiences. It is these experiences which form the starting point for a dialogue with the group executive. The concept is also built on the idea that the executives actively support it, and from the very beginning it was clear that the companies’ top leadership were behind the measure. All the CEOs were present at the project’s start, and they affirmed - also to the media - that more women in leadership positions were necessary to any successful business. Over the past year the ten women from each company have also been reporting straight back to their group executive committees. 

“‘The Battle of the Numbers’ injected energy and we managed to get the majority of the organisation to help initiate and finish the project over twelve months. We had workshops with the company leadership, where we presented long lists of necessary changes “needed to become interesting and attractive employers”. We also learnt a lot about best practice from other companies. Through the project we created a boost and we probably also put a bit of extra pressure on each other,” says Anette Segercrantz.

Straight into the leadership group

The work within Storebrand/SPP was also made easier by the fact that the company was undergoing a major reorganisation parallel to the project. During the autumn of 2013 everyone in the group executive were given new mandates and 50 new bosses were given new roles within the group.

“All vacant and new positions were advertised, these were open processes and we got internal mobility. That resulted in the creation of many new positions which would report to the group executive,” says Anette Segercrantz. 

Today 38 percent of the group executive is women, compared with 22 percent in 2012. The number of women in operational leadership positions stands at 42 percent, compared to 37 percent the year before. All departements on all levels must now demonstrate a gender balance within their leadership groups. 

“If this is not possible, whoever is responsible must be able to explain why, or ‘go around once more’. The same goes if after final job interviews the choice is not between a man and a woman. The system of succession should also be balanced. If this is not the case, you need a plan for how to make it happen”, says Anette Segercrantz. 

Increased rotation between top leaders is high on the agenda. Internal rotation increases attractiveness and keeps the tempo high. Nobody is forced to change jobs, but after three to five years in a top position it is desirable for people to move on to other jobs within the group.

“If you make changes to improve the gender balance, the consequence can be that somebody needs to move. You can benefit a lot from changing, even if it is tough for many. Making changes can sometimes hurt. And if you ask whether men sometimes need to step aside, the answer is yes,” says Anette Segercrantz. 

A question of sustainability

Surprisingly neither Anette Segercrantz nor Sara Skärvad talk much about gender equality. Instead they talk about sustainability and balance. One reason is that certain departments might need to recruit men as well as women, for instance within customer relations, HR and communication. The question ‘who are we missing’ must be part of every recruitment process. Employing a variety of people means better decision are being made because they will be based on more and different outlooks. Knowing this, it becomes important that employees have different educations, experiences, ethnicities, age and so on. This is sustainability, according to SPP. You also become a more attractive employer and get employees who think it is fun to work. This makes you interesting to customers too. Sustainable action moves focus away from what you do to how you do it.

“For this you need mixed groups. This will be picked up by customers and workers and we become more attractive to younger people. We aren’t credible when we preach sustainability and our leaders are all men from the same background and age. We want balance, and this has become self evident also on a group level,” says Anette Segercrantz. 

One conclusion drawn is that when there is gender equality within the group executive, it affects the entire organisation. You automatically get mixed groups further down too.

“When you see the dynamics and how well people work together, more groups will want to achieve the same kind of balance in order to do a good job. You see opportunities and you see how much fun it is to work together. It spreads,” says Anette Segercrantz. 

“We also see how the men change. Everyone’s a winner here. It is about the use of language, how people think, express themselves and act towards others. Mixed leadership groups create a different kind of dynamics. There is a great difference from before,” says Sara Skärvad. 

Summing up their experiences from ‘The Battle of the Numbers’ and from their own work for change, they can list a number of gains. The organisation has become more open and freer, and more workers no longer worry about seeking leadership positions. There is also more talk about SPP externally and in more positive terms, which has resulted in a considerable increase in job applications. It is also interesting to note that the issues are very similar regardless of which company you look at, even though a classically male dominated manufacturing company will have a different starting point to a company with a more mixed base. 

And the work goes on even though ‘The Battle of the Numbers’ has ended. What has been won must be maintained, other issues must be developed and improved. 

“We will continue to work for mobility within the organisation and for how women can be recruited to top positions. Role models are important — a young woman might not fancy being the only woman in the bathtub,” says Anette Segercrantz.

Exporting the idea abroad

‘The Battle of the Numbers’ will continue, but in Sweden the work will carry on in other ways which will be presented later this spring. The concept will also be exported to other countries.

Sofia Falk is the founder of Wiminvest, a company whose model of developing more female leaders by using their own experiences has been used in the project. She was also one of the people behind the initiative, alongside Cissi Elwin, editor in chief for Chef magazine and Eva Swartz Grimaldi from Blanchi café and cycles. Looking back on the year of ‘The Battle of the Numbers’ she is very pleased.

“So much has happened and I still think we haven’t seen the full span of this. The public debate has also made bosses look at women’s participation in operational leadership. I have spoken to many HR directors who also say that with the support of management it has become an important issue. People have started talking about women in a different way,” says Sofia Falk.

She stresses the importance of having the top leadership on board when making these changes - otherwise nothing will happen. The question of women’s leadership has also become easier to measure. You identify a goal, develop a way to reach it and measure what has happened. It becomes like other areas within the company. 

“We have made it happen - putting words into action. We have made this measurable and we’ve seen the importance to the market,” she says.

Anette Segercrantz

If you want to make changes to improve the gender balance, someone might need to move over, says Anette Segercrantz (picture above).


offers consultancy services and a wide portfolio of savings and pensions solutions for companies, organisations and private individuals. SPP employs just over 500 people with head offices in central Stockholm. SPP is part of the Norwegian Storebrand Group. SPP’s total assets under management are valued at 140 billion Swedish kronor (€15.8bn).

‘The Battle of the Numbers’

ran between November 2012 and November 2013. The project aimed to improve women’s chances of getting operational management positions.

Ten major Swedish companies took part in the project - Ericsson, Scania, SEB, H&M, IKEA, the pension provider SPP, Saab, SSAB, Sandvik and Volvo. Ten women from each company were chosen to take part in four day-long workshops where they could also exchange experiences. The ten companies’ CEOs also took part in the project. 

The project was an initiative by Sofia Falk, the founder of Wiminvest, Cissi Elwin, editor in chief for Chef magazine and Eva Swartz Grimaldi, Blanchi café and cycles. The three women now want to export the model to other countries. 

Read more in this earlier NLJ article: 


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