Promising stern action against recalcitrant firms, Children and Family Affairs Minister Laila Daavoey on Tuesday regretted the companies were not doing enough to bring about gender equality at the workplace.
"Companies have been dragging their feet. They really have to recruit more women," Daavoey said. "In the very worst case, they will face closure."
Norway's parliament told firms in 2002 to ensure at least 40% of each gender in boardrooms by mid-2005 to force corporate leadership to match Nordic traditions of gender equality elsewhere in society.
Before Tuesday, however, Oslo had not spelt out sanctions for non-compliance. Many companies denounce the scheme as the toughest corporate gender equality goal in the world.
"Since 2002 the percentage of women in boards has risen to only 11% from six," Daavoey said. "Yet there are thousands of qualified women out there - companies can choose from half the adult population."
Many European nations have more women in boardrooms than Norway and the male bastion is a paradox for a country where 40% of the cabinet of Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik and 37% of parliamentarians are women.
Daavoey, who oversees sex equality rules, said all state-controlled firms including oil group Statoil and telecoms firm Telenor had already complied.
But many other firms are lagging behind, including energy and engineering group Aker Kvaerner and internet search group Fast.
Many business leaders say the rules will force them to recruit ill-qualified women as quota fillers.
"If we can recruit women to our state companies, why can't private businesses do it too?" Daavoey said.
The Norwegian oil industry
supports gender equality
Gender equality is built into Nordic traditions of strong welfare, now funded in Norway by vast North Sea oil revenues. As long ago as Viking times, women ran farms when men went abroad on voyages of discovery or pillage.
Under Daavoey's plan, Oslo will review lists of corporate boards in August 2005. If they fall short of the 40% goal, the government will set a legal deadline of 2007.
In 2007, laggards would face liquidation by court order if they refuse to comply after a formal, final warning.