What drives the female executives who defy the odds to reach the top?

The recent Global Gender Gap Report placed Denmark fifth in the world, but it still has a long way to come

With an employment rate of roughly 72 percent among women aged 15-64, and one of the most highly-educated female populations, Denmark is a leading European nation in regards to women in the labour force.

And just recently, the 2014 Global Gender Gap Report placed Denmark fifth out of 142 countries for closing the gender gap. 

Women on their own
However, Denmark, along with most of the EU, does not have strong female representation in executive business positions. 

Although a 2013 report by the European Commission revealed that at least one woman was present on the board of over 90 percent of the included firms, it often tends to be just one lone woman. 

Nordics lead the way
The report’s findings reveal that the boards of the largest publicly-listed companies in Denmark have on average only one female for every five members.

This is a long way behind fellow Nordic countries Iceland and Norway, which have via legislative quotas both achieved the EU’s target of 40 percent – the only two countries to do so.

The ladies who lead
Nevertheless, three female Danish business leaders – Suzi Lyng Hansen, Sanila Rana and Dorte Prip – have defied the statistics to hold prominent leadership positions in Danish companies. 

Read on to hear their thoughts and advice for professional females. 

Sanila Rana: (pictured above)

  • ► Current position: Big data sales executive and ambassador at IBM Denmark
  • ► Previous positions: Nordic volume sales leader, Nordic market leader, marketing manager, business controls adviser, public client project leader and inside sales leader – all at IBM

Suzi Lyng Hansen:

  • ► Current position: associate professor of media production & management at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, Copenhagen
  • ► Previous positions: CEO of Dansk Kommunikation; CEO and COO of Andersen Management International; project manager at Deloitte Touche International

Dorte Prip:

  • ​► Current position: CEO of CBS-Executive
  • ► Previous position: Senior Vice President at Coop

How do women and men differ in the workplace? 

Hansen: Take a look around in Denmark, and you’d say that men and women are different and alike in a lot of ways. Regarding how society can obtain a more equal footing in relation to work and pay and promotion for women in relation to men, my answer is this: we need much more transparency on the criteria applied to duty and deeds, pay and promotion, and formal and informal cultural codes etc. When that is obtained, as we have seen in a few big corporations also in Denmark, a number of women often end up doing substantially better career-wise than before. 

Rana: Each human being has a unique capability. What characterises them depends upon their educational and cultural background, their visions and goals in life (including what they are passionate about achieving), and how much they believe in themselves. Many people are saying that women have more empathy than men – but I have experienced some women with a great portion of empathy and others who lack it – as well as men who have this quality and others who don’t.

Prip: A woman’s tone of voice can be more pleasant and balanced. I have also found that discussions are viewed from more angles when women are involved.

What professional advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

Hansen: None! 20-year-olds really don’t like taking advice from old folks; I was no different. If I were to talk to my 20-year-old self retrospectively, I’d say: How very smart to work that hard and still have time for sports and fun. It takes a whole person to make a full life. A lot of workplaces and people unfortunately settle for a lot less.

Rana: Take an education! I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn´t educate myself. Secondly, learn how important networking is to advance and make progress in your career. For me, networking diversely – such as across age, gender and cultural background – is the key to success. Particularly regarding age – people much older than me give me insight about how things are working in a business environment, and the younger generation inspires me with new ways of thinking. 

Prip: Make sure you take at least a year abroad. Don’t ‘nest’ too early; it’s better to share an apartment with a friend for a while than your future husband because it’s important to stay free to be able to move around (study in another country, travel or work).

What are the three characteristics, traits or skills women need in order to succeed in your industry?

Hansen: Innovative drive, creative teamwork  and good business judgment. 

Rana: Belief in yourself, efficiency and a work-life balance.

Prip: A love for what you do, 100 percent effort and a desire to face challenges.

Is there anything else you would like to share with aspiring female businesswomen?

Hansen: Work half as hard; double up on strategy. Know your field of business and get advice from those who know it even better. 

Rana: Follow your dreams and don´t hesitate to take opportunities – you are your only limit to achieving your goals in 

Prip: Accept challenges even when you are in doubt – you can do it. Ask for help – it is a strength and you will discover that you’ll never get a ‘no’ for an answer.