Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum’s report on gender parity for nine consecutive years. It’s a hard won battle in a country with a long legacy of women’s rights movements.
Euronews reporter Valerie Gauriat takes us on a journey through Icelandic society to discover the secret ingredients that give the country a lead in the fight for gender equality.
Church and language
On a chilly Sunday morning in January, worshippers head to church in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.
Today, mass is being held by Guðrún Karls Helgudóttir, one of the female priests at the largest congregation in in the city.
She is among the members of Iceland’s National Lutheran Church fighting to increase the number of women in the institution.
“And what I would like to change is the women’s role in the church parliament and the governing body of the church. We are only 20 percent of women in these groups and this is where we decide everything; this is where there is the power”.
The minister also wants to neutralize gender in the state religion’s theology and religious speech.
“If we want to express faith or God, we have to do it so everyone can feel included,” she explains. “God is not like a woman or a man, a mother or a father.
“So I have now started to talk about God as “It”. But at the same time I think it’s important that we talk about God as “She” and “He”, not only “He” as we do in the Icelandic church. So when I use these forms, I use “She” when I can”.
The next day, Guðrún Karls Helgudóttir delivers the testimonies of 64 women priests to the Bishop of Iceland, also a woman. The priests say they were victims of harassment or sexual assault, and are thus joining the #MeToo movement.
Show me the money
Women’s activism is engrained in Icelandic society.
In January, a new gender parity law came into effect. It requires private and public companies with more than 25 employees to pay men and women equally—and prove it. Businesses that fail to do so are subject to fines.
It’s the first time such a law has been enacted anywhere in the world. But for Thórarinn Ævarsson, CEO of the Icelandic branch of IKEA, it’s nothing new.
As part of a pilot programme, his company pioneered the law five years ago. As well as gender parity, the law also covers ethnicity, age, sexual orientation and disability.
At IKEA Iceland, half the workforce is female and the majority of managerial jobs are held by women.
The logistics department used to be all men—now it’s all women. Three women run the sales department for the whole company.
“I started in 2007 as a part timer,” says Sales Manager Birnea Magnea. “I was working, while at school. I’ve had all the opportunities I need. I think there’s no difference if you’re a man or a woman, we have the same salary, it’s the same for everything”.
For Thór Ævarsson, equality is just good business:
“I think it’s absolutely impossible for the long term to have a profitable company unless you have your staff happy. And if half of your staff is not happy, it’s absolutely impossible to have a decent business. Happy staff, they are producing more, they are selling more, and it’s making a better day for everybody here”.
Don’t give up the fight
A few years ago, one of Iceland’s biggest unions ran a campaign to reduce gender disparity in wages and in career advancement.
One video ad showed a woman walking side-by-side with a male colleague until her path is blocked by a transparent glass wall.
“Is there something invisible at your workplace?” a narrator asks, “Let’s correct the gender pay gap”.
While the new gender parity law is good news, it doesn’t mean the battle has been won, says Ragnar Thór Ingólfsson, President of the VR Trade Union.
“It’s imprinted in our culture that men should be paid more for the same jobs than women,” she says. “We also have a legislation on boards of companies, according to which men and women should be equally divided. So, still we are having problems to find women who are willing to be board members of companies and institutions. We will have to keep the fight always going. Because we have seen that when we stop, the gap will increase”.
It’s a fight that has been going on for some time.
On October 24th, 1975, the country held its first ‘Women’s Day Off’. On that day, 90 percent of Icelandic women stopped all activities, and protested throughout the country in a bid to claim their rights.
Since then, the protest has been repeated several times.
In 2016, Icelandic women stopped working at 2:38 pm sharp, to protest the persistent wage gap between men and women. On average, women are still paid 16 percent less than their male counterparts.
The persistence of Icelandic women is the legacy of a century of feminist struggle and women’s strong presence in the labour market, says Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir, a professor of gender studies at the University of Iceland.
But geography also makes a difference, she says:
“I think the smallness of the country contributes to this in a way. Because with the smallness come these close ties, networks, connections. And we have a very easy and fast flow of information. So women can activate, they can mobilise within a very short time”.
Running the show
This ability to mobilise has contributed to the strong presence of women in politics.
In 1980, Iceland was the first country in the world to elect a female president.
Almost 30 years later, in the wake of the financial crisis that brought down the government, a woman became prime minister for the first time in Iceland.
In November 2017, Iceland again elected a female PM—Katrin Jakobsdottir, a charismatic figure from the Left-Green party. Her election was part of the fallout from a pedophilia scandal that led to the demise of the previous government.
But in the course of the same election, the number of female parliamentarians fell from 48 percent to just 38 percent.
In Iceland, parity is also about men’s rights
Hjálmar Örn Jóhannsson is a transport manager and a comedian. He makes comedy videos for social networks and he’s getting ready to go on leave:
“Usually I work at the family company but most of my work now is entertainment. I’m going to be on paternity leave now, for almost six months. I’m also taking a vacation. So I will be with my boy for eight months total. Only in Iceland!”
In Iceland, father and mother are entitled to three months of parental leave each, plus an additional three months that they can share.
Hjalmar will be taking care of his 8-month-old son full-time. His partner, Ljósbrá Logadóttir, has just resumed her job as a director at a major Icelandic bank.
“In the beginning when they (babies) are growing up and getting to do new things and learning, it’s a good thing for me to get the connection,” Hjalmar says.
“I was on maternity leave at the beginning, so I took care of everything. And now I have to leave the house and I have to hand over the title to him! And for me, it’s really important that I can return to my job and I still have my job, and have high salaries, as high as the men,” Ljósbrá adds. “And then we have to have equal rights in every single section of the country. It can’t be just that we get the same payment. We also both have to be able to be at home, and it’s normal”.
Nonetheless, in 60 percent of cases, it is still women who take most of the nine months of leave. That’s because parents on leave get 80 percent of their salary and, on average, men’s wages are higher.
In Iceland, equality begins at school.
Ten years ago, Hanna Björg Vilhjálmsdóttir was the first teacher to launch a class dedicated to gender issues.
The subject is now compulsory at 27 of the country’s 33 high schools.
“We analyse the society together and try to see how and why the sexes are discriminated,” Vilhjálmsdóttir says. “And my aim is first of all to make them realise that it is a fact. Because not all of them are aware, or haven’t realised it. They just think this is how it should be.
“I saw that this was really empowering for them, to realise the stereotypes. But the final aim is that they will be happier. Happier people. Happier people make good societies”.
Here, no topic is off-limits. On the class agenda today: homophobia. Just a few days earlier, one of the school’s students was beaten up in the street for being gay.
Students say they can see the value of the course.
“It’s a lot more important than a lot of the other stuff we’re learning in school,” says Arnthor Sigurdsson. “I think gender studies are something that we have to deal with every single day, in pretty much every situation with people in them”.
Teaching children about equality is necessary to ensure a truly equal society, Vilhjálmsdóttir says:
“I think that there will not be equality, nowhere, in any society, if the school system is not an active part in it. We mould their ideas here. So we plant seeds here”.
Never too young to learn
Planting the seeds of equality at an early age—this is what Margret Pala Ólafsdóttir has been doing for nearly 30 years.
She founded the so-called Hjalli method which is now applied in about 20 nursery and primary schools in Iceland.
The principle: to separate boys and girls at school in order to allow them to flourish fully.
All activities are the same for everyone. Toys, educational tools and clothes are unisex.
Once a day, boys and girls meet up to put into practice what they have learned.
It’s a method that Ólafsdóttir says helps children avoid the stereotyped behaviors she says are inevitable in mixed classes.
By separating the children, girls get to be noisy, to scream and jump and use their voice, Ólafsdóttir says, while boys are given the space to become more socially adept.
“If you’re really helping them to be the best individual they can be—so there is nothing boyish, nothing girlish—they are all capable of individual qualities and social qualities. That’s what we want. Then we will meet up as whole persons”.
The Daughters of Reykjavik
Existing 100%, is what the 15 members of the Reykjavikurdaetur group, or Daughters of Reykjavik, are all about.
They are an artists collective and make up an exclusively female rap band, which is gradually imposing itself on the very masculine world of rap.
“We just made a space for us in a music scene, a genre that didn’t leave much space for us,” says artist Steinunn Jónsdóttir
“We’re doing exactly what we want without apologizing for it, on stage,” adds Sólveig Pálsdóttir. “I think feminism today is about, not only you know, taking your space, but being unafraid of being the entire spectrum of what is being a woman. Just not the pretty side or sexy, just taking the entire f****** rainbow (of what it is to be a woman). Because we do live in a structured society which is keeping us below, you know… It’s a fact”.
Often labeled as a feminist band, the Reykjavikurdætur sometimes get involved in activism. Today, they are participating in a photo shoot for a UN campaign trying to combat violence against women.
But for them, existence is the essence of feminism.
“I didn’t join the band for the feminist side, says Ragga Holm. “I just joined for the party and rapping you know!”
“The most feminist thing is just being. Just doing what we’re doing,” says Anna Tara Andrésdóttir. “It’s a feminist thing!”