This article was originally published in Dagens Industri on Nov 20 2012.

Women comprise sixteen percent of the boards of directors of Sweden’s publicly listed companies. There’s no question that this is an unacceptably low number for several reasons, not least because it affects profitability and competitiveness for business, which is a concern for us. This is why we have decided to join forces in the project “Battle of the numbers,” which aims to get more women into operative management positions (and thereby top- tier management groups and boards of directors).

One of the most important challenges for us as business leaders today is how we will be able to attract, recruit and retain employees with the right competence. Upon interviewing 500 top directors around the world, Lloyd’s Risk Index reported in 2011 that the lack of competence is thought to be one of the greatest risks business is facing.

Recruitment is one of the most important issues businesses face in the future. And if we want to find the best employees we have to ensure that we are truly tapping into the entire population’s potential. This is why the issue of diversity is becoming even more central for us. We all work with diversity on a general level, taking into consideration gender, ethnic background, nationality, competence, professional background, disabilities, age, etc.

“Battle of the numbers” is one tool of many for improving diversity. We have chosen to use the English word numbers since it is associated with both an actual amount as well as profitability. We believe that when it comes to women in management positions, the numbers must rise, that this must happen faster, and that it is a question of better numbers on the bottom line. Over the course of one year, we will look at what actually works in our organizations, and we will also identify what leads to even better progress. We are already working actively and systematically with a number of measures to get more women into management positions. But we want more. We want to be even better.

We are ten companies in completely different industries. We work within everything from IT and industry to fashion, interior decorating and finance. Together, we represent organizations with 570,000 employees and total revenues of over 1,600 billion SEK, and we do business around the world.

With “Battle of the numbers,” our method is to employ the women in our organizations as experts. We want to work concretely, persistently and decisively and not get stuck in theoretical discussions. We have selected ten soon-to-be and existing women managers from each company, who will work as internal consultants. These 100 women will work together to make a change. They will scrutinize our organizations to identify obstacles and opportunities when it comes to getting women into operative management positions. Then they will share their conclusions with each other and the management groups.

Among other things, these women will examine how the management roles are designed, which incentive and reward systems exist within the companies, how the routines for feedback work, how the career paths look, how women are noticed and mentioned within the organizations, how parenthood is viewed and how it is handled practically within the organization, and other issues that emerge during the course of the project and that turn out to be relevant for creating an environment conducive to getting more women into management positions.

We believe that by working together, openly and across industries, that we can more quickly identify the methods that have the greatest practical impact. We can learn from each other’s experiences and share successful strategies.

Conclusions and experiences from the project will be made public at the closing event in one year.

By making our commitment to this issue public, we want to shed light on the great gender imbalance in business and show that it is a serious issue, and also that we are doing something about it. We also hope to inspire other business leaders. Sweden is known as one of the world’s most equal countries, and we believe that this project can strengthen and reinforce that image. There is no lack of discussion at either the EU or global level when it comes to getting more women into management positions, and our hope is that the “Battle of the numbers” can also become a model for businesses in other countries as they get more women into leadership roles.

The gender equality debate has largely come to center on the balance of men and women on most company boards. This is an important issue, but nothing a CEO can actually influence. The owners and the nomination committee determine the composition of the board. In our capacity, what we can accomplish is to increase the number of women in operative positions within the actual organizations, thereby expanding the pool of potential board candidates.

By participating in “Battle of the numbers” we are taking a stand for a more equal and thereby more profitable and competitive Swedish business.

Hans Vestberg, President and CEO Ericsson

Karl-Johan Persson, CEO H&M

Mikael Ohlsson, President and CEO Ikea Group

Håkan Buskhe, CEO SAAB AB

Olof Faxander, President and CEO Sandvik

Martin Lundstedt, CEO Scania

Annika Falkengren, President and CEO SEB Sarah McPhee, CEO SPP

Martin Lindqvist, CEO SSAB

Olof Persson, President and CEO AB Volvo