An audience with Iron Erna

September 26, 2014


Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg

Earlier this week I attended an event featuring the Prime Minister of Norway. Until I received the invitation from the New America Foundation I candidly admit I had no idea who ran Norway, let alone that she was a woman. Her name is Erna Solberg, and she heads a conservative government. I went along because I’m fascinated by women who do unusual things – and running a country is still unusual for a woman.

Here’s what I took away from the talk:

The first thing I noticed is that Solberg is not slim. I was surprised and excited by this because as every woman in public life knows, the pressure to look 'good' by western standards is unrelenting. She’s plump and she wore quite a loud print dress, which, again, seemed bold. I imagine a Hollywood stylist would be horrified, but Solberg clearly dresses (always professionally) to suit herself. Hats off to her. She is a female head of state who hasn’t tried to lose 50 pounds to please the tabloids.

Being British I can only imagine what the British press would do to a woman of her size who wanted to become prime minister of Britain. Every other article would make some snide remark about her weight.

Solberg admitted during her conversation with Liza Mundy of the New America Foundation that a female PM did have to put up with more questions and comments on her appearance than a man would. But she believes there is a positive side to this, which is that "people get to know me better as a person."

Known in some circles as ‘Iron Erna’, she said on the one hand the nickname conjured up images of someone who’s ‘too’ tough, unfeeling even. But on the other if it let people know she was able to make difficult decisions, ‘Iron Erna’ was fine with her.

Years ago she watched another female politician cry when she lost an election. At the time she thought, "You can’t let your feelings show in front of other people. You’ll come of as weak." But she’s had a change of heart over the years. Now, she says, who cares? You’re a person with feelings. So what?

Several of my guests on The Broad Experience have echoed what Solberg said next, when asked about why there are still few women in powerful positions in the Norwegian workplace: yes, there are structural impediments, but women are also perfectionists. We are so busy trying to excel in every area that essentially we don’t have the energy to scale a company’s heights.

“I’m a big fan of getting people to lower their shoulders,” she said in her rather charming English. In short, you cannot do everything, so concentrate on the things that are most important to you and leave the rest.

The divorce rate in Norway has dropped lately. Solberg believes this may be because Norwegian fathers get so much paternity leave relative to men in other countries (currently 10 weeks). She thinks that leave helps families bond and stick together.

But Norway is not perfect. Yes, it has a much higher number of female politicians than many other countries and yes, 40% of board members at Norwegian companies are female thanks to a quota system. But in other areas of the workplace, the number of women has not increased. There are fewer female CEOs in Norway than in the US.

Solberg said, “There is a structural problem in our society,” and that is gendered jobs. 48% of Norwegian women work in the public sector, while only 19% of men do. Women continue to do traditionally female jobs such as teaching, nursing and cleaning and men continue to be engineers.

I’ll be talking more about Norway’s gender policies and its attitude to work/life balance in the next episode of the show. Tune in on October 6th.