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Is Iceland a 'gender paradise'?

November 20, 2018

Iceland is often held up as the poster child of gender equality, but as Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir told DW ahead of the 2018 Women Leaders Global Forum, even her country has to keep fighting.

Isländische Premierministerin Katrin Jakobsdóttir
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

DW: Iceland is often referred to as "the most gender-egalitarian country in the world." Would you agree?

Katrin Jakobsdottir: I have often said that while we are proud of our place at the top of the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap list, women in Iceland are also very aware that even we — in this top global position of the "gender paradise" as Iceland is sometimes called — have work to do.

While there is a difference in degree between women's equality in Iceland and some other corners of the world, the nature of the discrimination is the same. The gender pay gap  still exists in Iceland, women still don't have equal power in Iceland's corporate and financial world, and we also have the serious problem of gender-based violence and sexual violence and harassment in Iceland, as most recently revealed by the #MeToo movement.

Do you think your country's gender equality achievements are sufficient?

No. The fight for gender equality won't be "over" or "sufficient" until we have eliminated gender-based discrimination in Iceland and across the world. Even though we reach a milestone here and there, we must never think that because of those milestones or goals reached, the fight for gender equality is something that we can allow ourselves to put on the backburner.

I don't see the struggle for women's rights as a box-ticking exercise, this is a battle for fundamental human rights and it demands a shift in our cultures; we need to change how we treat and perceive each other. This is not a job of one generation, but many. And I want to look back and say that I played my part and that my government was a force for progress, not regression.

Katrin Jakobsdóttir
Katrin Jakobsdóttir is prime minister of Iceland, and a mother of three Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

Icelandic women were active participants in the #MeToo movement, with thousands sharing their experiences of sexual harassment and assault on social media. These stories showed that cultural change is still missing in many areas of society. Would you agree?

Yes. The #MeToo movement exposed systematic harassment, violence and everyday sexism that women in all layers of Icelandic society are subjected to. A recent study covering over 24,000 Icelandic women indicates that one in four women have experienced rape or attempted rape. An open dialogue on violence against women is likely to lead to more women speaking out about their experiences. So, if this is the story in the "most gender equal place" in the world, we can imagine what is going on across the world.  I believe this is one of the most pressing human rights issues of our times. And to end violence against women we must end inequality between women and men so that all genders can flourish.

The #MeToo movement pushed the topic of sexual harassment and the experiences of many women to the top of the list of issues where people are demanding change — not just in Iceland, but in many other countries. How can it have a positive and lasting effect?

One of the things the #MeToo revolution has taught us all is that oppression of women thrives in silence. If we do not speak up and let it be known that we no longer tolerate certain behavior, things won't change. If we stay silent, women will keep on suffering. The #MeToo revolution has been a huge eye-opener and hopefully we will see the change needed.

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As part of our presidency in the Nordic Council of Ministers next year, we will host an international conference on the impact of the #MeToo movement in September 2019. The conference will ask questions such as: Why did #MeToo happen now and why has the impact been so different between countries? What does the backlash against #MeToo tell us about present day sexual politics? I hope this conference will attract thinkers, activists and policy-makers from across the world so that we can seize the energy of #MeToo to bring about lasting positive social change. 

A poster reading #MeToo, with three clenched fists held up in the air
Different countries have reacted to #MeToo in different ways, a conference in Iceland next year will look at whyImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Ralston

There is now gender quota legislation in Iceland to ensure women are fairly represented on company boards, and your administration is implementing a pay equity law. It was passed to ensure that by 2022, men and women in public institutions and private companies over a certain size will receive comparable salaries for comparable work. Why is it taking so long for the goal of equal pay to be achieved?

It is interesting that while we have endless studies demonstrating that diversity on boards and in management is not only the right thing to do, but also best for business, the corporate world still persists. Despite the gender quota legislation, men still dominate on corporate boards and in the highest layers of management in Iceland's largest companies.

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There is still this stubborn gender pay gap  of about 4.5 percent in Iceland — and we're talking about the adjusted pay gap, that is pay for equivalent work. Our most recent tool to tackle the gender pay gap is the equal pay standard, which requires companies to prove they're paying women and men equally. This is already leading to changes in pay structures as companies, organizations and institutions have discovered that they were underpaying women. But I am also interested in the unadjusted and the overall pay gap between women and men, because that tells us the story of how our societies are made up and what kind of work we value and what kind of work we don't value.

Looking at Europe, it's obvious that women are still widely under-represented in politics as well as business. What can women do to help shift the balance of power?

We should look at this from the perspective of both men and women: What can we do as a society, what can we do together? Under-representation  is not just a women's issue. Let's ask ourselves. What can men do? Well, they can start by acknowledging that we have not reached gender equality and take part in the change that is needed to eliminate inequality by bringing more women to the table. The Women Leaders Global Forum, hosted in Iceland this year and the following three years, is an important platform to find ways to take the next steps.

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Then we constantly need to address the links between women's representation and women's inequality in other areas. Violence against women is a barrier to women's public participation, and online harassment can serve as a tool to push women out of the public space.

Iceland's Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Croatian President Koolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic
Four women who are 'part of the change'Image: SZ Wirtschaftsgipfel

Women's economic independence is also a key factor to ensuring women's representation. And as women still carry the bulk of domestic and child rearing responsibilities, family policies are essential for women's participation in business and politics. I have said that I would not be where I am if it wasn't for shared parental leave (with a use-it-or-lose-it proportion for fathers) and universal childcare. If any policy-makers are wondering what to do to liberate women, my response is childcare and parental leave.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has often been described as one of the most influential politicians in the world. Do you think Mrs. Merkel has changed the way female politicians are perceived?

I think Chancellor Merkel is one of the most influential politicians of our times and she will be remembered as such. While role models are important, I believe women's status is best improved through movements. I don't think any one woman in a certain position brings about change. But we are all a part of the change and I hope we continue moving in the right direction.

Katrin Jakobsdottir has been prime minister of Iceland since 2017. 

The interview was conducted by Manuela Kasper-Claridge and has been edited for length and clarity.