Should Government Mandate Women on Corporate Boards?

Last Updated Dec 3, 2009 11:22 AM EST

If you think the Obama administration is extending the power of government too far into private enterprise, just look at what is starting to happen in Europe.

First came Norway, which in 2003 mandated that 40 percent of board positions on large companies be held by women. Now it's France's turn.

Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party has offered legislation requiring women to comprise half of leading boardrooms, both state-owned and private, by 2015. The legislation will be debated in January.

These aren't toothless directives. In Norway, business owners are threatened with being shut down if they don't comply. No wonder, then, that Norway, which had a mere 6% female board representation in 2001, now has more women on boards, 44.2%, than any other country. According to, here is the geographic breakdown:

  • Norway, 44.2%
  • Sweden, 22%
  • Finland, 17%
  • U.S. 15.2%
  • UK, 12%
  • France, 10.5%
I find it hard to believe that the current administration would ever venture so far into governance of private businesses, but my friends on the right see footprints already heading in that direction, such as the government's not-so-subtle pressure to force an ouster of former GM CEO Rick Wagoner.

Whether it be in Washington or Paris, what's your opinion on how far government should intrude into the workings of private business to correct what it sees as social wrongs?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.