Maëlyss Barranco

Fighting Patriarchal Dynamics in Business Law: A Conversation with Beate Sjåfjell

Beate Sjåfjell is a professor at the University of Oslo where she teaches Sustainable Business, Finance and Circular Economy and Corporate Sustainability Law. Beate Sjåfjell is an advocate for human rights and climate action. She works tirelessly to reform corporate law, particularly in the area of European Union law, to foster sustainable change. To learn more about her academic path, her extensive research and her international projects for a more sustainable future, please see our accompanying piece : «  Can we Make Companies Sustainable? - UIO Professor and Expert Beate Sjåfjell Talks Businesses, Sustainability and the Law ».

In this this article, we invited Beate Sjåfjell to discuss her insights on how women scholars can address and overcome patriarchal challenges in male-dominated sectors such as business law.

Question: Could you share your thoughts on the challenges faced by women scholars within male-dominated sectors such as business law ? We especially recall you encountered sexism in a magazine.

Beate Sjåfjell: « Well, first of all, I must say that, yes, company law is still a very male-dominated area. Not so much as it was when I started out though. But the discussion that you referred to was what I called The Ownership Myth Debate of 2013, where I wrote just a small piece to the leading business newspaper in Norway to clarify a point, namely that shareholders don't own companies. Shareholders own shares that gives them lots of rights. In what is called the general meeting where the shareholders come together, usually once a year, they make very important decisions for the company, but they are not owners of the company.

And in 2013, there was this tax professor, not a lawyer, who wrote in a discussion about how companies should be taxed or not taxed and how shareholders should be taxed. He compared the relationship between a shareholder and the company to the relationship between a bank customer and the money that a bank customer has in the bank. And says that if the bank had paid tax on that, then it wouldn't be right that the bank customer should pay tax again when they took the money out. He saw that as completely parallel.

And I thought that was going really way too far. So I wanted to do my duty as a company law professor to inform the public that as a matter of law, shareholders don't own companies.
And I just saw that as a small thing. I didn't expect much response. But it sparked this debate that went on for months. In that leading business newspaper, there were some discussions. And the editor there told me that they filtered the responses that they got in and published the ones that... were reasonable in their argument and tone.

But in this other newspaper, the second biggest financial or business newspaper in Norway, there I think they just let in everything that came in. And the editor of that newspaper was very much a part of that discussion. He had this op-ed, the second page inside the newspaper where he writes his opinion on whatever. And he used that full page four times against me in the debate. And two of those times were in one week.

In the second one, he said « and why isn't Beate Sjåfjell responding ? » I had already responded. My letter to the newspaper was at the newspaper. So it's very strange that he didn't know about that. He went very far. He wrote things like the University of Oslo need to stop her from teaching. And if Beate Sjåfjell had been born in the Middle Ages, she would have been burnt at the stake as a witch.

There were only men in the discussion. And they were all very actively arguing against what I was saying. Except for one PhD candidate at the University of Bergen who was writing his PhD on the concept of ownership as a matter of law. He was the only one who came with some law-based argumentation to say that, you know, she is actually correct. But most of the others responding in that debate, they were economists or shareholders or both. And they seemed to be very angry.

And yeah, I tried to follow every piece of good advice that I found about how to manage a debate of that magnitude. I didn't get much support at the faculty. There was one person in the communication who spoke with me a little bit, but generally I felt very much that I was on my own here.

So I decided to organize a debate. It was an open meeting and I only asked people to register so that we would know how much refreshments would we need to buy.

The editor of the newspaper didn't register but came into the meeting with a lawyer on the one hand and an economist on the other. They marched in like you see mafia bosses marching into courtrooms in movies (without saying that he's a mafia boss in any way). They sat down on the second row and just tried to stare me down. So I ignored them.

I gave my presentation and proceeded with a discussion. But then, students present in the debate reported in writing afterwards that the lawyer working for that editor said to them «I grade exams at this faculty and if you write that rubbish that she is saying, I'm going to fail you». So I went public with it. I said that he has disqualified himself from ever grading and it actually turned out that he had never even graded exams at this faculty. That was just a lie. It was a really devious way to try to influence the debate.

And so it continued. I tried to open up the debate by saying in that newspaper, what is the ownership myth debate about? Why is it so important for shareholders to be regarded as company owners when they, as owners of the shares, have the control rights that they want? And they don't have the liability. That's why people establish a company. Even a single entrepreneur can do that, and will often do that so that they can get the profits if the business goes well, but they don't have any liability if the business goes badly. That's the ingenious thing with the company, or one part of it, rather.

And so I really tried to open up the debate in that way, but the editor in his fourth piece against me, wrote something like: « we want to be called owners because we are owners ». So I wrote my last piece in that newspaper on that debate, saying that this is what the ownership myth debate is about :

Firstly, it's about law, and there the law is really clear : I cited Norwegian Supreme Court judgments that have convicted shareholders for breaking the penal code - criminal law - for stealing other people's money when they had taken money out of the company. Because it was not their money. They had to follow all the rules in the Companies Act if they wanted money out of the company. Even if no creditors were harmed, because there was enough money in the company to pay the debts of the company. But it's not their money. So that was the law part. That was quite short since it is really obvious. My colleagues in other countries, they are shocked that this could be a several month long discussion here. There was just one practicing lawyer who actually tried to discuss with me as a matter of law. And I really appreciated that.

The second one was terminology, where it's very understandable. We often simplify things, for example we say « a wholly owned subsidiary» instead of saying «a parent company which owns 100% of the shares in the subsidiary». We simplify like that all the time. It is understandable that this simplification may have caused confusion. When I started my presentation at the debate meeting, I had a picture of the sun just above the horizon. And I said, is this a sunset or a sunrise? And the answer is that it's neither, because the sun doesn't set or rise. We just say that. It's a simplification instead of saying, oh, look at that beautiful view just now at this moment, when the planet is in the position where we see the sun just above the horizon. We say sunset or sunrise. It doesn't mean it's fact.

And the third level, which became clear to me, was that it was emotional. It was really an emotional reaction from people who felt that they were owners or just reacted against a woman saying things that many men thought was wrong.

After that debate ended, there was another attempt by a magazine that was run by the partner of this editor, who tried to make a slander piece. They phoned around people asking if there was anything wrong or bad that they could say about me. One journalist phoned me and was very aggressive, saying «we have information that you've supported the Communist Party of Norway». And first I laughed. And then she said «shall I take that as a no?». And I said, «not only can you take that as a no, but I want you to quote me verbatim that that is the most ridiculous attempt I've ever heard of trying to stop a company law professor from saying anything». They took that out but I had it in the transcript so I just shared everything. I wrote that any attempt at stopping me from saying what I think is correct based on research, I'm going to go public with it; every single time. So gradually the debate died down.»

Question: Is this story the reason why you founded Daughter of Themis ?

Beate Sjåfjell: « No, I wouldn’t say that. In January 2015, I started up ‘Daughters of Themis: International Network of Women Business Scholars’, because it was clear that there were many of us women scholars in business-related areas that were in minority.

We have annual workshops and have published several books. We have very good discussions in a secluded and harmonious workshop venue in Greece. It’s really amazing to see the difference that the Daughters of Themis makes for many of our members. It’s very easy when one feels like an outsider at one's own research institution to think that there is something wrong with me. And then when we hear one story after another from other women who experience the same things, then we can help each other see that no, in spite of all the progress in gender equality, we still live in a very unequal society, where there is still a big difference between how men are treated and women are treated. »

Question: Do you think the gender issue is a barrier when it comes to implementing research in a policy area ?

Beate Sjåfjell: «Well, I don't think gender is a main barrier there. I mean, in the SMART project that I coordinated, which was an EU funded project, we had very good collaboration with people in the European Commission working on different areas. I don't feel that we had a problem being heard there. There are also a lot of women working in these areas. And we also have a lot of good male scholars who are working in these areas with us as well now. So I don't want it to be seen as a dichotomy between men and women.

But we do see in this area that it’s still male dominated and also Anglo-Saxon dominated.
So there are some US and UK male scholars that get a lot more airtime than many of us do, without necessarily having done anywhere near the same kind of research. Sustainability is a very new area for many while for those of us who have been working on it for now one and a half decade, we have a lot of experience and knowledge in this area. Yet, we see that the Anglo-American approaches and the Anglo-American voices are still very strong ».

We appreciate Beate Sjåfjell for taking the time to share her invaluable insights and experiences.

Maëlyss Barranco & Beth Brittin