Iceland: The Most Gender Equal Country in the World?

Hello everyone!

Last month, a friend linked me to an article which said that Iceland is the most gender equal country in the world. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference called ‘Towards Gender Equality’ which also referenced how well the Nordic countries balanced rights for both genders, specifically Iceland. You may have seen this photo circulating on Facebook recently:

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This photograph was taken on 24th October 1975, when 90% of women in Iceland went on strike. Women were tired of the wage and benefit discrepancies between men and women in the workplace and wanted to show just how indispensable they were. This strike didn’t just take place in the workplace, however. On this day, women who were prevented from carrying out paid employment due to their household and childcare responsibilities also went on strike within the home. In many cases, men were forced to bring their children into work with them and this entire event caused international attention to be drawn towards the issue.

More recently, the 10th of November was Equal Pay Day. In the UK this meant that due to the pay gap, women would spend the rest of the year effectively working for free. In Iceland, women didn’t just acknowledge and bemoan the day, many decided to leave work at 2:38pm, which represented the end of their paid working day (due to the 14% pay gap).

While we can discuss statistics until the cows come home, I did start to wonder how much of what we read in the news was reflective of the situation on the ground. I got into contact with a lady called Kate, a British solicitor and mother of three who has been living in Iceland for six years, and interviewed her on her experiences. This is what she had to say:

Women in the workplace 

It is interesting to compare Iceland with the UK. Geographically they´re very close neighbours but culturally are very different in many ways. One of those ways is at work. Generally speaking the working environment in Iceland is much more pleasant than it is in the UK. There is not such a pronounced hierarchy and managers and bosses are much more relaxed, friendly and down-to-earth. In the UK I have both witnessed and been subjected to workplace harassment and bullying [by both men and women]. It is all too common in the UK. I think here there is a much more respectful, egalitarian outlook. I cannot imagine workplace bullying, of either men or women, being tolerated here. I think this is partly related to the fact that people are much more straight-talking in Iceland than they are in the UK. People just say it how it is. There is none of the underlying, unspoken dialogue that you get in the UK where people will say one thing and mean another and others will take offence and harbour great resentment without uttering a word about it.

Despite the egalitarian outlook, my experience is that there are still fewer women in senior positions in Iceland. I work at a law firm where there is just one female partner and the other eight are male, and it tends to be women who fill the support roles. There is also a pay gap although it´s smaller than in the UK. I suspect that the reason for this is that women here, just as anywhere, tend to more self-reflective and self-critical and lack confidence in pushing themselves forward. Men here, as anywhere, dominate in meetings and assume that they´re brilliant at everything. There is also an arrogance in the men here that I haven´t seen so much in the UK. This is something that needs to be addressed, both by encouraging women to push themselves forward to speak up at meetings, ask for pay rises etc., and training men to be mindful of this and to encourage women.

I wouldn´t have thought this would be too difficult to achieve as my experience is that Icelandic men will happily describe themselves as feminists and do encourage and are proud of the women in their lives. It just perhaps just needs to be made explicit and translated into the workplace.

Factors affecting working parents

There is a real focus on children here so there is absolutely no issue with men and women leaving work at 3.30 to pick up their kids from school. I´ve never been a mother in the UK and so I don´t have any direct experience of this, but have heard about people disparagingly being called “part-timers” there when they leave at 5pm to pick up their kids. That would categorically never happen here. Many people will spend the late afternoon and evenings with their kids and then go back to their laptops after the kids are in bed. Again this is all very acceptable here. 

Most people belong to unions who negotiate their employment contracts with the result that almost everyone gets two days´ paid leave a month if their children are poorly and away from school. There are also guaranteed places at nursery school for all children aged two years and over. For children aged under two there is state-subsidised child-care provided by child-minders. The child-care costs here are minimal in comparison to the UK. These are all things that assist and support women in returning to work after children.

However there is nothing that supports women who want to return to work part-time. The childminders will only take on children on a full-time basis and there is no real culture of part-time work. My kids are aged six, four and 16 months and I would love to work three days a week and spend the rest of the week with my kids but the system isn´t set up for this. I think this is an area that could be improved so that there are more options available to women as to how they organise their careers and family life. 

In terms of maternity/paternity pay and leave, both parents get three months´ paid leave with another three months to be split between them, although the mother usually takes the second three months. Maternity/paternity pay is a proportion of your usual salary up to a maximum. It´s not terribly generous and leaves you a bit lean for a few months but apparently has just been increased.

I´m not aware of any issues around returning to work after maternity leave. This is probably partly to do with the small jobs market in that you´re unlikely to be replaced while you´re away on maternity leave so you just go right back to your old job. 

Breastfeeding in public 

Breastfeeding in public is actively encouraged and no-one bats an eyelid about it. I´ve breastfed while having a meeting with my male manager and you may have read about the MP who recently breastfed while speaking in Parliament.  Funnily enough, it´s only in the UK that I´ve ever experienced people feeling uncomfortable with me breastfeeding in front of them (and quite honestly I´m so used to the relaxed attitude in Iceland and it´s such a natural thing that it didn´t occur to me that anyone would have any opinion about it at all!)

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Sexual harassment 

Of course it must happen, but I think it´s much less prevalent here. There´s actually not much public transport – no trains, trams, metro etc. just buses, so perhaps less opportunity? But I´ve never experienced any harassment from construction workers etc. 

Schools

Schools here are similar to schools in the UK, in that they tend to be full of female teachers and so actually it´s the boys who struggle in this very female environment. I have heard of nursery schools where the boys and girls are separated for part of the day so that their different needs can be addressed. I don´t know whether that´s a positive thing or not, but as a mother of one girl and two boys I do think there are some innate differences between boys and girls, although I´d hate to pigeon hole them into gender-specific categories – my boys love dressing up in princess dresses and I definitely don´t stop them doing that, but I do know that my boys find it harder to sit still.

Sanitary products 

Just like the UK, I´m pretty certain sanitary products are taxed here. Most things are and it is an expensive place to live in many ways.

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I hope you enjoyed this interview – if you’d like more from this international interview series, please leave a comment with your country of choice below and I will do my best to oblige!

Many thanks to Kate for her contribution and to Holly Rushton for the inspiration 🙂

Thanks for reading,

~ Sanya

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