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Icelandic women take a stand

Vera Kern
October 26, 2016

Iceland is in many ways a model country in matters of feminism. Yet here, too, women earn less than men. They are striking to try to change this.

Island Proteste  wegen Gender Pay Gap
Image: Arnór Birkisson/BSRB

Thousands of women in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, walked off the job at precisely 2:38 p.m. on Monday, October 24. They were protesting against the fact that they earn less than their male colleagues, for doing the same work with the same qualifications.

The time is not an arbitrary choice. Theoretically, from 2:38 p.m. onwards, an Icelandic woman on a normal eight-hour working day is not earning anything, because women in Iceland only earn an average of 70 percent of the income their male colleagues receive.

Island Proteste  wegen Gender Pay Gap
Thousands of Icelandic women in Reykjavik took to the streets on October 24 to protest for equal payImage: Arnór Birkisson/BSRB

"There's still a significant divide between men and women in our society," Brynhildur Heithar- og Omarsdottir, the executive manager of the Iceland Women's Rights Association, told DW. The pay gap between the sexes has narrowed somewhat, she said, but the country is still very far from achieving true equality.

Protest despite top ranking

How can this be? The pictures of all the striking women in Reykjavik don't really fit with Iceland's image as a model feminist country. For years now it's been the international frontrunner on issues of economic equality. This was just affirmed by the World Economic Forum's most recent Gender Gap Report - Iceland comes top in the ranking of a total 144 countries.

"Iceland may lead the Gender Equality Index, but when it comes to the pay gap between men and women, our record is terrible," the former environment minister, Thorunn Sveinbjarnardottir, told to DW.

Island Proteste  wegen Gender Pay Gap Brynhildur Heiðar
Heithar- og Omarsdottir: 'We still have to fight for a truly equal society'Image: Gunnar Freyr Steinsson

"We still have to fight for a truly equal society," said Heither- og Omarsdottir, pointing out that Iceland's international reputation as a model of gender equality merely illustrates how bad the situation is elsewhere.

First women's strike in 1975

October 24 is a historically significant date. On this day in 1975, 90 percent of the women in Iceland did not go to work. Since then, a great deal has changed. In 1980 Iceland became the first democracy in the world to elect a female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir. A great deal of money was invested in childcare, and in 2013 a quota was introduced for women business leaders in companies employing more than 50 people. But none of this has managed to make much difference to wage inequality.

Island Proteste  wegen Gender Pay Gap
From pensioners to new workforce entrants, women are calling for equal pay for equal workImage: Arnór Birkisson/BSRB

This was why the women of Iceland took to the streets at 2:08 p.m. in 2005. In 2010, it was a few minutes later - 2:25 p.m. The difference does indicate that the pay gap between men and women is closing slightly - but at a snail's pace.

Girls want to be nurses, boys engineers

But why have all these efforts, political initiatives and protests by the women's movement had so little effect?

As in many other countries, the problem starts with young people's ideal jobs. Boys tend to dream of technical careers, while girls are more likely to choose work in the welfare sector, where jobs are less well paid. Ultimately, the civil engineer will then earn more than the nurse. In addition, women in Iceland are more likely to look after children, take time off work to be with the family, or work part-time.

Island Proteste  wegen Gender Pay Gap
Would they earn more as men? According to gender experts, businesses bear most of the blame Image: Arnór Birkisson/BSRB

But there have to be other reasons, too. Brynhildur Heithar- og Omarsdottir says that around 8 percent of the wage inequality can be traced back to discrimination.

"We mustn't blame women who chose the wrong profession when they were young," she said.

Her view is that society is responsible for the unequal pay, because social structures in Iceland are geared towards men. Many gender experts are therefore calling for more pressure to be applied to businesses.

Voluntary seal of approval for firms

One first step could be the so-called "Equal Pay Standard." This is a kind of official seal of approval for companies that reward equal work with equal pay - regardless of the sex of the worker. Certification is voluntary, but is as strictly controlled as fair trade or organic labeling.

Many women's rights activists are hopeful that the equal pay certificate will have an effect. They praise it as an instrument unique to Iceland for combating the pay gap between men and women.

"For consumers, it's a fantastic instrument that enables them to see which companies are operating fairly," said Heithar- og Omarsdottir.

With this certificate, Iceland is leading the field once again. It remains to be seen whether it will really help to reduce the gender pay gap.