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Iceland’s women just went on strike. How is the rest of Europe doing on the gender pay gap?

People across Iceland gather during the women's strike in Reykjavik, Iceland, Tuesday, October 24, 2023.
People across Iceland gather during the women's strike in Reykjavik, Iceland, Tuesday, October 24, 2023.   -  Copyright  Arni Torfason/AP

By Aoife Barry

Iceland is seen globally as a bastion of equality, a place where the rights of all citizens are upheld regardless of gender. But even Iceland doesn’t have full parity when it comes to pay.

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Yet where it shows its status as a forward-thinking country is in how it responds to this issue: on October 24, thousands of women took part in an all-day strike. Even the country’s prime minister joined in.

Katrín Jakobsdottír was one of the thousands of Icelandic women and non-binary people who took part in the "kvennafrí," inspired by the very first women’s day off in Iceland 48 years ago.

They downed tools not just to draw attention to the country’s gender pay gap, but also to related issues like gender-based violence.

The small irony here, however, is that while Iceland’s gender pay gap is 10.2 per cent, it’s been named the most gender-equal country in the world for 14 years running.

When we look at Europe overall, the gender pay gap in the EU is just under 13 per cent and has only changed minimally over the last decade.

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It means that women earn 13 per cent on average less per hour than men, and would need to work an extra 1.5 months to make up the difference.

Cultural and societal reasons

There are many factors that play into the gender pay gap, including cultural and societal factors, caring roles, and part-time work rates. Because of this, the gap varies from country to country.

It ranges from less than 5 per cent in Luxembourg, Romania, Slovenia, Italy, and Poland to more than 18 per cent in Germany, Austria, Estonia, and Latvia, according to the European Commission.

Though in most countries the gender pay gap has decreased over the last 10 years, progress is (very) slow. The gap has decreased by just 2.8 percentage points in 10 years.

In an effort to bring about wider change faster, the EU has introduced the work-life balance directive (to help ease the pressure when it comes to caring duties), gender balance on corporate boards, and the European Care Strategy.

Gender equality in the workplace

But while there can be overarching attempts at remedying the gender pay gap, individual companies and workplaces need to play their part too.

On a very basic level, when employees are treated differently because of their gender, they don't feel valued. Creating a diversified and equal workplace is beneficial for all, as it means opening the floor to a variety of viewpoints and experiences.

Gender equality helps everyone to reach their potential, something that companies are increasingly recognising.

The economic benefits of closing the gap can even have a positive effect on GDP. Creating a more balanced workplace also has knock-on effects: the Bloomberg Gender Equality Index 2023 found that for its members, on average, the mean gender pay gap is 50 per cent lower for companies with women CEOs.

In some European countries, such as Ireland, companies now have to publicly publish their gender pay gap data, which means we get an insight into how they’re addressing the issue.

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For example, Accenture reported that its mean (average) gender pay gap in Ireland is 9.05 per cent, and median (midpoint) gender pay gap is 1.34 per cent.

The company conducts an annual pay equity review, and its last review found 100 per cent pay equity for women compared to men in Ireland.

It has also detailed what it’s doing to close the gap, including shifting towards a 50/50 gender-balanced workforce at all career levels in the country.

Meanwhile, Mazars reported that women make up 35 per cent of its global leadership team and 43 per cent of its governance bodies overall, though it recognises the need to further balance female representation in its Group Executive Board alone.

It has also partnered, at the group level, with the Observatory for Gender Balance to address gender diversity in its company.

Focusing on gender diversity in the workplace is an essential for any workplace in 2023. It doesn’t stop there - it also feeds into working on wider diversity in the company.

All progress is good, but the facts are sobering: the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that at the current rate of progress, it will take 132 years to close the gender pay gap.

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