Sun. Feb 25th, 2024

    The tiny island nation of Iceland has the world’s smallest gap between men and women. Women in the country want you to know it’s no gender equality ‘fairyland.’

    Thousands of women and non-binary people gathered across Iceland during the strike on October 24.

    Iceland has topped the WEF’s gender gap index 14 years in a row. But women living there say it’s no gender equality paradise.They’re under-appreciated at work, violence is too high, and foreign-born women bear the brunt of the problems, they said.”What I see is not gender equality,'” Ása Steinars said.

    On a surprisingly sunny day in late October, an estimated 100,000 women and non-binary people — about a quarter of the country’s population — gathered in the centers of cities, towns, and villages across Iceland as part of a 24-hour strike, where they ditched work and household chores. Instead, they protested around the theme of “Kallarðu þetta jafnrétti?”, or “You call this equality?”.

    In Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, the biggest gathering was held by far. Speakers took to the stage to demand equal pay, address gender-based violence, and call for more respect for women and non-binary people.

    Even the country’s prime minister took the day off work to strike.

    “It was incredible,” Saga Líf Friðriksdóttir, the founder of Viking Women, an Icelandic women-only tour company, told Business Insider.

    “I had chills all over while standing there. It was a beautiful moment being downtown with almost 100,000 women, and we were all chanting and clapping and raising our fists.”

    Speakers at the strike demanded equal pay, addressed gender-based violence, and called for more respect for women and non-binary people.

    Iceland is widely seen through rose-tinted glasses as a gender equality paradise. It has topped the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index for 14 years in a row, and the ranking claims the country has closed 91.2% of its gender gap, which it defines as the difference in health, education, and economic opportunities.

    But men, women, and non-binary people still aren’t equal.

    Iceland “is not yet at parity, even if it is number one in the world and despite many, many years of progress,” Saadia Zahidi, a managing director at the WEF, said in a video last year.

    Both Icelandic and foreign-born women told BI that though they largely feel safe in Iceland, it’s no feminist paradise. The country can’t become complacent and let progress stagnate by relying on its status secured by rankings such as the WEF’s, they said.

    “People talk about Iceland as this kind of utopia and we have come a long way when it comes to feminism, when it comes to inclusivity and diversity, but we are not near where we need to be,” Valenttina Griffin, co-founder of the non-profit WomenTechIceland, told BI. “We are far away from it.”

    “We have delivered the message that we are the most gender equal country in the world, but sometimes living here you are like, ‘how can we be the best country in the world?,'” Ása Steinars, a photographer and adventure content creator, told BI. “And what I see is not gender equality.”

    Graffiti spotted on a building in Reykjavik says in Icelandic that women don’t yet have complete freedom.

    Iceland’s recent women and non-binary people’s strike, held on October 24, has its origins in the country’s Red Stockings movement. Though the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association was founded back in 1907, it wasn’t until 1970 that the campaign for gender equality really began to boom in the Nordic country, when the Red Stockings movement came to the scene “with a sort of colorful bang,” Rakel Adolphsdóttir, archivist at the country’s Women’s History Archives, told BI.

    The group of mainly young women, influenced by feminist movements in Denmark and the US, staged radical performances such as crowning a cow “Miss Young Iceland” at a beauty contest in 1972. It also held conferences where women could speak publicly about wages and workers’ rights without being taken over by men, Adolphsdóttir said.

    The Red Stockings decided in 1975 to hold the country’s first women’s strike — later renamed Women’s Day Off to avoid some backlash — on United Nations’ Day, campaigning primarily for equal pay and job opportunities. On their flyers, organizers pointed out women’s lack of trade union representation and inability to become full members of the Farmers’ Union, as well as the under-appreciation of their housework.

    An estimated 90% of Icelandic women took part, stopping both paid and unpaid work for the day.

    “That was like a wake up call for many women,” Thorgerdur J. Einarsdóttir, professor of gender studies at the University of Iceland, told BI.

    The day off helped pave the way for the 1980 election of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world’s first democratically-elected female president, and the formation of a political party made up only of women. It also led to a number of further, smaller women’s strikes. But 2023 was the biggest strike since 1975.

    Awareness of gender inequality increased following the financial crisis of 2008, which “unraveled the masculine undertones in the economy,” Einarsdóttir said.

    “We had this Icelandic Viking discourse that they were very good, smart businessmen,” she said. “The economy just collapsed overnight. And then we had a very strong discourse on: ‘Now when the men have run the economy into ruins, it’s women’s turn.'”

    Women were appointed to positions of leadership, and the country got its first female bishop and female prime minister.

    Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was elected in 2009, becoming Iceland’s first female prime minister and the world’s first openly gay leader.

    Concerns about gender equality mounted again during the pandemic, when women took on more childcare responsibilities and reported instances of violence against women rose.

    Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir, the chair of the BSRB, the Icelandic federation of public sector unions, was one of the organizers of this year’s strike. She told BI that Icelandic women’s groups, LGBTQ+ organizations, and unions decided to hold the strike because of a backlash to gender equality in recent years.

    Support for the strike was unanimous, Þorbergsdóttir said. “There was no question about it.” Most companies were also cooperative and agreed to still pay their workers who went on strike, she said.

    The strike’s objective was to show what happens when women and non-binary people stop working, she said.

    “The effect should be that Iceland stops,” she said. “That is what we want to show.”

    A number of schools, kindergartens, and shops closed because of the shortage of workers, while some hospitals stopped non-emergency procedures.

    “We also sent out quite a direct message to men saying that this was the day that their spouses or the women or the non-binary people in their lives were going to strike,” Þorbergsdóttir said. “So this was the day that they had to take all the responsibility of children and the home.”

    This year’s strike aimed “to provoke this image of us being an equal rights paradise because we don’t feel that people can connect to that in daily life,” Þorbergsdóttir said.

    Inclusivity was a key part of this year’s strike. The event was rebranded as a strike for women and non-binary people, and Þorbergsdóttir told BI that it meant many people learned the Icelandic word for non-binary for the first time.

    Attendees told BI that they were impressed by the broad range of speakers at the Reykjavik event, too. Alice Olivia Clarke, who relocated from Canada to Iceland 30 years ago, addressed the audience in both Icelandic and English. Speaking at the event was “such a privilege,” she told BI.

    Gender-equality rankings don’t reflect everyday life

    Factors that helped secure Iceland’s position at the top of the WEF’s gender-equality ranking include its subsidized childcare, the proportion of women in leadership roles and STEM professions, and women’s educational attainment. The WEF also points out legislation that requires companies with more than 25 employees to show they pay equal wages, entitles both parents to six months of parental leave, and requires women to make up between 40% and 60% of board members.

    Iceland also tops the WEF’s political empowerment subindex, with a parity score of 90.1% compared to the global average of 22.1%. At the country’s most recent general election in 2021, 30 women and 33 men were voted into the Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament, and half of the country’s ministers, including the prime minister, are women.

    Katrín Jakobsdóttir has served as Iceland’s prime minister since 2017.

    But when asked about the WEF rankings, Þorbergsdóttir, the BSRB leader, said that “it’s the big question of what they’re missing.”

    “Perhaps these aren’t the things that you want to measure if you want to kind of describe everyday life of people in Iceland,” she said.

    “It is important to be aware that there are still inequalities and power imbalances that are not assessed in the index,” the Government of Iceland says on its website.

    In terms of both the pay gap and violence against women, Iceland isn’t doing better than the countries it compares itself to, namely the Nordics, Þorbergsdóttir said. Iceland ranked eighth in the UN Development Programme’s 2021 gender inequality index, behind Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

    In a survey of more than 32,000 Icelandic women carried out across 2018 and 2019 by the University of Iceland, 40% of respondents said they’d experienced physical or sexual violence during their lifetimes, and 32% said they’d experienced sexual harassment at work.

    Some groups of women are more vulnerable to violence and low wages, including foreign-born women, women with disabilities, and trans women, the interviewees said.

    Women feel underpaid and under-appreciated at work

    Iceland has an unadjusted gender pay gap of 9.1%, according to 2022 data from Statistics Iceland, though older workers fare significantly worse. OECD data suggests Iceland has a bigger gender pay gap than the three Scandinavian countries – Denmark, Norway, and Sweden – as well as Colombia, Lithuania, and Spain.

    Iceland has a labor-participation rate of 61.7% among women and 70.5% among men, according to UN data. Women work on average seven hours a week less than men and are nearly three times more likely to work part-time, meaning that even though legislation stipulates they get the same base pay as men, they take home less each month.

    Steinars said she’d been treated differently as a freelance photographer to her male counterparts. She said she’s paid significantly less than men even when working for the same companies and gets “put in very stereotypical boxes.” Though she specializes in climbing mountains, skiing, and outdoor photography, some companies still ask her to document family and domestic life instead, Steinars said.

    Ása Steinars told Business Insider that she was paid significantly less than male photographers and gets “put in very stereotypical boxes.”

    In the tech industry, meanwhile, most large companies in Iceland are dominated by men while many women work in non-technical, “feminized” roles like HR, marketing, and content development, Alondra Silva Muñoz, chair of WomenTechIceland, told BI. Data from Statistics Iceland show how much the unadjusted gender pay gap varies by occupation, with a gap of 20.5% for technicians and associate professionals.

    Women are deterred from jobs in tech because they don’t have safe spaces to address issues they face and they don’t get the same pay and opportunities as men, Griffin, the WomenTechIceland co-founder, said. “You don’t feel appreciated. You end up leaving.”

    Silva Muñoz said the tech industry wasn’t doing enough to address gender inequality, either. “You’ll find the non-profit organizations taking all the initiative to work on these issues, but not the private sector,” she said.

    Teaching, however, remains dominated by women. A drop in salaries, combined with changes in the 1970s that meant schools adopted a “softer approach” and focused more on welfare, meant that women took over men as the majority of teachers, 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.

    “We see more and more women seeking out jobs within male-dominated fields,” they said. “The same cannot be said for men seeking out jobs within female-dominated professions, which, often, concern pedagogy and care.”

    Iceland is no ‘fairyland’ for female immigrants

    The tourism industry — which includes jobs in hotels, cleaning, and restaurants — has big problems with gender equality, Einarsdóttir, the gender-studies professor, said. Many smaller tourism companies aren’t properly regulated and offer low wages, she said — and foreign-born workers are most likely to be taking on these poorly-paid jobs.

    Iceland has a booming tourism industry – and with it comes many low-paid jobs.

    “I think we have a very big problem there,” Einarsdóttir said, noting that immigrant women were most vulnerable to the gender pay gap. They’re also more vulnerable to violence.

    More than 20% of all women residing in Iceland were born overseas, according to data from Statistics Iceland. Of these immigrants, about a quarter were born in Poland, with the vast majority aged between 20 and 49.

    If you’re both an immigrant and a woman, Iceland “is not the fairyland that’s being promised to everyone,” said Shruthi Basappa, a food writer and co-founder of architecture studio SEI who relocated from India to Iceland 11 years ago.

    “I’ve had a harder time being a professional woman here than I have in India, because in India I’m automatically an architect,” she told BI. “But in Iceland, it doesn’t matter what room I am in, even as a professional, it’s always being reduced to being a woman or an immigrant.”

    Silva Muñoz, the WomenTechIceland chair, who is from Chile, said she was used to being “one of the few women, often the only foreigner, often the only person of color” in professional settings. “I feel the responsibility” to represent these groups, she said. “Of course I’m going to burn out. I’m carrying all the burden.”

    ‘It’s very important not to celebrate that you are the best’

    In Iceland, there’s political willingness to introduce gender-equality laws, “but they’re not always effective,” Einarsdóttir said.

    Instead, many interviewees told BI that what’s needed is more of a mindset change among Icelandic men. In recent years, gender-equality discourse in Iceland has increasingly focused on the concept of the “third shift” – the idea that, on top of going to work and physically taking care of their children and home, women also carry the mental burden of their roles as wives, partners, mothers, and carers.

    There’s concern politicians and business leaders could rely on Iceland’s reputation for gender equality and could stop advancing their policies.

    “Even though we are at the highest rank of countries, it doesn’t mean it’s a good situation,” Friðriksdóttir, the founder of the women’s travel company, said. “We still have more of this mountain to climb until we reach the top.”

    Einarsdóttir said that gender-equality rankings were “very double-edged.” Though rankings motivate governments to top the lists, they “can play arguments into the hands of those who can say that this is enough.”

    Thorgerdur J. Einarsdóttir, a professor of gender studies at the University of Iceland, told Business Insider that it’s “very important” to not take gender-equality rankings too seriously.

    “And it’s very important not to take them too seriously,” she said. “It’s very important not to celebrate that you are the best,” she said. “That’s dangerous because it brings the risk of false security [and a] simplified picture of how things are.”

    Basappa, the food writer and architect from India, said she thought that the concept of Nordic exceptionalism was used to hide some of the country’s issues. “We have a very good narrative in terms of being this magical place where all the problems that exist elsewhere don’t exist,” she said.

    Not everyone had the ‘luxury’ of striking

    This year’s strike was not without its criticism – mainly from men.

    “Leading up to the strike, it almost felt like we wouldn’t manage,” Steinars, the photographer, said. “It felt like people wouldn’t participate because you hear the criticism louder than the positive voices.”

    It was also hard for some women and non-binary people to actually attend the strike event. Steinars said some of her friends who took the day off work actually stayed at home with their kids whose kindergartens and schools were closed because “to them it felt like a hassle to ask their husband to take an unpaid day so that they could strike.”

    “Some women argued, ‘is it seriously harder for women to show up in this day and age than in 1975? How did 90% of women do this in 1975?,'” Steinars said. “But now in 2023, a lot of women were saying, ‘I cannot take a day off.’ And then some women argued, ‘well, then that’s the problem.'”

    Most women and non-binary were paid for the day they went on strike – but some didn’t have that luxury.

    And some groups of women and non-binary people simply didn’t have the option to take a paid day off work for the strike.

    “There are very few that did not get paid that day, but we could see a class division in it,” Þorbergsdóttir told BI. People working in cleaning and tourism – mainly of foreign origin – were less likely to be allowed a paid day off, she said.

    Griffin, from WomenTechIceland, said that some women had the “luxury” of going on strike. Griffin and Silva Muñoz said went to a café on the day of the strike and said they saw mainly foreign women workers who “couldn’t afford to go on strike.”

    “We can’t have class division when you’re having a women’s strike for all, especially when they are subject to more discrimination,” Þorbergsdóttir said.

    Older generations fight so younger ones can flourish

    But despite these concerns, the women BI spoke to said that they largely felt safe living in Iceland.

    “In Iceland, it’s probably the safest place in the world to walk home alone in the dark,” Steinars said. Jewells Chambers, who relocated from Brooklyn to Iceland seven years ago, said that she felt “leaps and bounds safer” than in New York City.

    Thorhildur Thorarinsdóttir, an Icelander who studied for her masters in Denmark, said she noticed the difference between the two counties. “It was shocking to see and feel how much Denmark felt behind,” she told BI over email. “It felt like going back 10-15 years in time … I didn’t feel as respected as a woman as I do in Iceland.”

    Women BI spoke to largely said they felt optimistic about the changes that future generations would bring. Griffin and Silva Muñoz – both millennials – said that what their generation referred to as diversity and inclusion was just “the norm” for Gen Z.

    Valenttina Griffin and Alondra Silva Muñoz, the co-founder and chair of WomenTechIceland, said they were excited for the opportunities that Gen Z women would have.

    “They don’t need to have the conversation of whether there will be enough females in their team,” Griffin said. “For them, that’s the norm.”

    “All the fights that we have been taking … these are going to enable younger generations to flourish and they don’t have to deal with these issues,” Griffin said. “That’s why they take it for granted … They don’t think about it because we are putting on the fights.”

    Read the original article on Business Insider

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