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Iceland’s lessons in gender equality

Bijgewerkt op: 29 mei 2020

By Gwen Rochat

An equal society for men and women: Iceland does it best, according to the Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum. For the eleventh time in a row Iceland tops the list. The Netherlands, on the contrary, places 38th. Wherein lies Iceland’s success, and how can the Netherlands learn from this?

The numbers

The ranking that decides how gender equal a country is, is called the Global Gender Gap Report. This report is published annually by the WEF, short for World Economic Forum. The WEF is an independent economic organisation. Every year, 149 countries are measured for their amount of gender equality. Click here to read about gender equality in the European Union.

Side note: not all countries in the world are included in the report, because the WEF uses certain factors to conduct their research. Some countries do not collect the right data for these factors and therefore cannot be included in the research. So, the report is not 100% definite.

In this year's report Iceland tops the ranking for the eleventh time in a row. This means that in Iceland, the gap between men and women is smallest. The Netherlands, on the other hand, ends up on the 38th place and has, compared to 2018, even dropped eleven places. This means that other countries have improved their gender equality more than the Netherlands in the past two years.

“In the Netherlands, there is a general assumption of gender equality already being achieved. In Iceland, the country which has been praised for having already achieved gender equality, there is an ongoing movement towards improvement”, Ásta Berglind writes, researcher at the University of Tilburg (the Netherlands). She has written her thesis called ‘Creators of Change’ on gender equality in both Iceland and the Netherlands. But, as the results from the WEF report point out, this assumption is all wrong.

A secret formula?

Wherein lies the secret of Iceland’s success? Why is it that this country, compared to everyone else, has succeeded in creating a much more equal society? Could there be one magical solution to solve inequality and if so, could the Netherlands use this? To answer this question, we must first investigate the Icelandic approach to improving gender equality.

Feminist watchdogs

The watchdogs of gender equality: these are the feminist movements in Iceland. They look over the government’s shoulder and let them know when they are doing something wrong. One of these organisations is the IWRA, which is short for ‘International Women’s Rights Association’, the oldest and largest feminist organisation of Iceland. Her job is to stimulate debate on gender equality, moderate the government and support other feminist groups, in Iceland as well as abroad.

Brynhildur Heiðar- og Ómarsdóttir from the IWRA tells us what makes Iceland so special. According to Brynhildur, one important cause for its success in improving gender equality can be named.

“There is one thing that we can thank for that and that’s the feminist movements and the fact that the feminist movements in Iceland have always been very strong and very vibrant. There has never been one ruling voice in Iceland on gender equality. They have lots of voices competing and working on gender equality in all these different ways."

“And all the changes that we have been able to make in the past in all these ways have been due to the pressure of the feminist movements on the government and of people in positions in power to affect change. So like, people in power, they don‘t change unless they are forced to", Brynhildur says.

Druslugangan, the Icelandic version of the 'Slut Walk', is an example of the many feminist protests organised in Iceland. Every years, Icelandic men and women walk the streets to protest rape culture. Eva Sigurðardóttir is one of the team members of Druslugangan. “I joined the march for the first time in 2014 and it was one of the most empowering moments of my life”, she says. She explains that they also organise other events, that are related to that summer’s theme of the movement. “We as a team choose a focus point and a theme for the march each summer related to what is happening in our society and produce campaigns to alert the public and raise awareness.” Eva is also a co-founder of the online feminist magazine Flóra Útgáfa.

Look here at photos from Druslugangan 2019.

Foto's are shot by Berglaug Petra Garðarsdóttir and can be found on the Facebook page of Druslugangan.

Another example of a feminist protest is the #FreeTheNipple campaign that was launched in Iceland in 2015 when a female student posted a naked picture of herself on her Twitter page. This sparked a protest when a male student bullied her, causing many women and men to walk the streets without shirts of bras.

Look here at photos from the Women's March in Reykjavík in 2018.

Photos are shot by Rut Sigurðardóttir.

Turning point

In 2008, the economic bank crisis hit Iceland hard. Surprisingly, this crisis was an important cause for the improvement of gender equality in Iceland. Brynhildur explains why:

“What happened in the wake of that is that the government obviously collapsed, and they needed to call a new parliament to re-election and what happened then was pretty stunning, right? Because people wanted to vote for something new, they wanted to vote for people that had not participated in the events leading up to the crisis, who had not participated in creating the culture and the legislation and the legal framework that had allowed this catastrophic collapse to happen. No, what they did was that they voted for women and women broke the glass ceiling in parliament for the first time in early 2009. And nobody was talking about this because people were talking about money but this sort of meant that women went from 28% to 38% in parliament overnight and they haven‘t really gone down since then.”

Before this, important gender equality legislation was passed maybe once in a decade. But after the crisis new gender equality legislation has been passed almost every year.

“This is what it means to have equal access to power, equal political participation. When you give women equal access to the table, the conversation is going to change.:"

Labour market

Another important condition for gender equality is full participation in the labour market. Two important changes Iceland has made to accomplish this are equal and cheap access to day-care and equal maternity and paternity leave.

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the current Prime Minister of Iceland, emphasizes the importance of these things: “Another example of policy as a hugely important tool is our maternity and paternity leave. This law, combined with universal day-care and preschools for all, is the foundation on which everything else stands when it comes to Iceland’s gender equality.”

Brynhildur explains why this provides equal access to the labour market: “The universal access to day-care as a keypiece of legislation plus at the same time equal parental leave, that is also very important. We need to change society to allow everyone in the society to participate fully in the labour market no matter what their gender. This is something people often don‘t think about because it seems so basic and boring but if you don‘t have the educational institutions to, you know, allow women to leave the house, women can‘t leave the house because women do more of the housework still, unfortunately.”

Active politics

“Iceland has long been a world leader when it comes to gender equality and this did not happen automatically”, Katrín Jakobsdóttir says. She explains the importance of actively working in politics to improve gender equality. “We have a strong tradition of creating policies with the precise goal of levelling the playing field for men and women. Take for instance gender quotas on corporate boards and on public committees. The quotas were implemented in Iceland in 2013 and now boards of companies with over 50 employees are required to have a gender balance of at least 40/60 on their boards.”

Applying quotas was quite a radical political change. Another of those changes is the (relatively new) equal pay legislation.

The pay gap closed

Equal pay legislation

A law that requires companies to pay men and women equally for similar work: similar laws already existed, but these did not have their desired effect. There still is a pay gap in many countries, where men are paid more than women for the same job. Iceland, however, is the first country to make this illegal. In 2017, the law was approved in parliament and on January 1st, 2018 the law was activated. This means that companies with more than twenty-five employees need to prove they pay their employees equally. If a company does not do this, it will get a fine.

The law in practice

Reykjavík Energy is one of the first companies to apply the equal pay legislation. This energy company, which supplies a large part of the capital with hot water and drinking water, was immediately enthusiastic of the new law. Víðir Ragnarsson from Reykjavík Energy tells us more about this:

“RE (Reykjavík Energy) has been focusing on equality measures for the last 20 years. There was an equality committee already in place in 2000, bringing up specific projects to focus on in making the workplace more equal. A part of that work was measuring the gender pay gap. Those analysis have been done in a structural way from the year 2006. Since this work has been a part of what we do as an organization for all this time it has given us a lot of time to look at our data, making the data better and refining the pay structure model.”

He explains that the new law was seen as a continuation of what they were already doing. This does not mean that applying the law went without its obstacles. “One of the main obstacles in my view is in the standardization process and the auditing. Let’s say that it has been a challenge to explain the thought processes we have been going through for years in terms of gendered decision making for the auditors that are not educated in gender studies”, Víðir says.

An advantage of the equal pay legislation, according to Víðir, is that it has forced companies to look more closely at their jobs and to regulate their data, which was a challenge for some because they hadn’t done this at all in the past.

Working to a 100%

Feminist movements, special legislation, women in politics and access to day-care… Iceland works to improve gender equality in many ways. Yet also in Iceland there is still inequality, as no country in the world has yet closed the gender gap. We asked Icelanders what they think can be improved in Iceland.

A feminist paradise?

“I’ve heard so many people describe Iceland as a feminist paradise. And, compared to many other countries, we are”, Eva Sigurðardóttir says. “But we still have a long way to go. Growing up, I have come across many obstacles for only being a woman. And women and non-binary people are more vulnerable to abuse and violence than men. I don't think all genders have equal opportunities within Icelandic society and therefore there is work to do: Throughout the political and economical landscape, educational systems and health care and, last but not least, within society’s and the publics’ dialogue.”

Equal job and education choices

Víðir Ragnarsson from Reykjavík Energy can also name a few points of improvement for Iceland. “Although Iceland has been crowned the leader in equality there are still many points of improvement. “There are too few women going into trades and tech jobs and too few men going into teaching, nursing, and such. So, Iceland still has a lot of way to go towards equality in terms of job and educational choices.”

Stopping gender-based violence

“Our next priority is to eradicate gender-based violence and harassment. There we are focusing on education and pre-emptive measures to raise awareness which is the first step to stop gender-based violence and harassment. Another important step is to implement holistic support for victims of sexual violence”, Katrín Jakobsdóttir explains.

Part-time workers

Brynhildur from the IWRA thinks less women should work part-time, as this increases inequality. “Women work more part-time than men. You can see the average work week of men is around 42 hours a week. The average work week of women is 10 hours less. The thing is, if you look at those numbers, it is not that women are lazier than men. They are working less because they are doing unpaid labour in the household. They are doing unpaid labour and therefore saving money from the government, thereby directly impacting their bankaccount.” With this, Brynhildur points out a systemic inequality.

“People always ask us what our magical solution is, but it is complicated. It's the whole system we need to change.”

Women‘s work in COVID-19

If there is one thing the crisis around COVID-19 lays bare, it's that it shows which jobs are essential for keeping our society running and which are not. These turn out to be the jobs that are generally paid less and the jobs that are occupied largely by women.

“We are seeing something that feminists have been saying for decades, that women's work is of equal worth as men's work. But society has never seen it that way. It has always been that way in Iceland, I imagine it has also been this way in the Netherlands. That people who work in day-care are getting paid less than people who work in construction. That who work in daycare are women. But who work in construction? Mostly men. And the value society has placed on these jobs is unequal. Women's work is valued less than men's work”, Brynhildur explains.

She sees that in Iceland, mostly women work the essential jobs. She thinks that we should already be thinking of ways to change this inequality and give the people working these jobs the recognition they deserve.

How to achieve gender equality

To break the news right away: these is no silver bullet to stop all inequality and achieve gender equality. Looking at Iceland's approach teaches us that change requires action from all parts of society. This will be the lesson for the Netherlands, a country that should really step up its game when it comes to gender equality: it's not a one (wo)men's job.

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