The “third shift” refers to the mental load women and non-binary people take on related to planning their households.
The phrase “we need to get your mother a gift” says a lot about women’s equality in Iceland.The “third shift” refers to the mental load women and non-binary people take on related to planning their households.It includes remembering school meetings, booking their children’s dental appointments, and organizing celebrations.
Birna Hrönn Björnsdóttir’s favorite sign at Iceland’s women and non-binary people’s strike in Reykjavik was short and snappy: “We need to get your mother a gift.”
“It was simple, but so effective,” Björnsdóttir, the co-founder of LGBTQ+ travel and wedding-planning company Pink Iceland, told Business Insider.
An estimated 100,000 women and non-binary people – more than a quarter of Iceland’s population, and including the country’s prime minister – went on strike on October 24.
They shunned work, childcare, and chores for the day to show the contribution women and non-binary people make to the economy and their households and to protest against gender-based harassment and violence.
It was the seventh strike of its kind in Iceland, and the biggest since the inaugural Women’s Day Off in 1975. But this year, there was a new focus added to the mix: the concept of the “third shift,” or the mental load taken on by women.
People across Iceland gather during the women and non-binary people’s strike in Reykjavik, Iceland, on October 2023.
Arni Torfason/AP Photo
The idea of women’s double burden is well known: Women have to work their first shift of paid labor alongside their second shift of underpaid and generally undervalued physical duties related to childcare and housekeeping.
In recent years, women and non-binary people in Iceland have increasingly been talking about the third shift, too.
It refers to the mental strain or cognitive labor taken on by women and non-binary people largely stemming from their responsibilities organizing and planning things related to their second shift. Examples include remembering parent-teacher meetings, booking their children’s dental appointments, and organizing holiday celebrations with their partners’ families. As well as buying their own gifts to give, they’re also often responsible for buying the gifts that their children give to friends and relatives — and sometimes the gifts that their husbands and partners give, too.
“There’s so many tiny little tasks that need to be done every day that pile up, that mostly are done by the woman of the household,” Saga Líf Friðriksdóttir, the founder of Viking Women, an Icelandic women-only tour company, told BI.
Speaking about the third shift, Ása Steinars, a freelance photographer and adventure content creator, told BI that mothers she knows “feel that it lands a lot on them and that their partners don’t always fully understand the issue at hand.”
“It really feels like this has just now reached the consciousness of most people,” Rakel Adolphsdóttir, archivist at the country’s Women’s History Archives, said.
Iceland has a labor-participation rate of 61.7% among women and 70.5% among men, according to UN data. Though women are nearly three times more likely to work part-time than men, they still on average work just seven hours a week less than men.
Women plug this gap by spending significantly more time on unpaid housework and caring responsibilities, spring 2021 data from Statistics Iceland shows. Women with children spent on average 11 hours a week on housework – 2.8 more than men with children – and 22.4 hours on care work – 5.6 more than men. With this comes the accompanying mental burden.
Icelandic women with children spent on average 11 hours a week on housework and 22.4 hours on care work, data from Statistics Iceland shows.
The third shift can carry “great psychological stress,” Sigrún Birna Björnsdóttir Kaaber, a specialist in equality and work environment at the Icelandic Teachers’ Union, and Gunnvör Rósa Eyvindardóttir, a gender studies and sociology teacher, told BI over email. It also means women may be unable to take on extra responsibilities and shifts at work, leading to a gender pay gap despite legislation stipulating that men and women get equal base pay, they said.
Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir, the chair of the BSRB, the Icelandic federation of public sector unions, and one of the organizers of this year’s strike, told BI that women generally took on further childcare and household responsibilities during the pandemic. This buildup of pressure could have been part of the reason for the huge attendance at this year’s strike, she said.
But the third shift isn’t just related to the mental burden associated with familial and housekeeping responsibilities.
“It also could be in the workplace or anywhere where women are mostly scheduling and thinking about things and organizing it so everybody feels good and is prepared for the day,” Adolphsdóttir, the archivist, said. This could include remembering to bring in a cake for a colleague’s birthday, she said.
A 2021 survey by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org found that female managers are about 60% more likely to provide emotional support to their teams than male managers. They’re also more likely to take action to make their employees’ workloads more manageable and to prevent burnout, the survey found.
But not everyone thinks that the third shift is a real problem.
“I think that’s probably one of the biggest issues now, because some people just refuse to understand it and acknowledge it,” Björnsdóttir, the Pink Iceland co-founder, said.
Adolphsdóttir similarly said that she thought the concept of the third shift was getting a lot of pushback, with critics describing it as a “made-up problem.”
There’s some optimism, though, that increased discussion of the third shift might encourage men to take a more active role in both childcare and household management – especially with mindset changes among the younger generations.
“My generation and younger are very, very mindful of what happens in their home and who takes responsibility and what their partners get away with,” Björnsdóttir said.