In a country of only 330,000 people, there are 19 such primary and nursery schools, empowering girls from an early age. Since 2010, Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index. The Economist recently named Iceland the world’s best place for working women. What is the reason for this gender success story? For centuries, Iceland’s women stayed at home as their went to sea. Without men at home, women played the roles of farmer, hunter, architect, builder. They managed household finances and were crucial to the country’s ability to prosper.
By 1975, Iceland’s women protested about their lack of political representation. Up to 25,000 women –at the time a fifth of the female population – gathered on the streets of Reykjavik. In addition, 90% of Iceland’s female population went on all-out professional and domestic strike. Teachers, nurses, office workers, housewives went on strike – to prove how indispensable they were. The big message was that if women don’t work, the whole community would be paralysed – the whole society. An all-female political party – the Women’s Alliance – was established Within five years, the country had the world’s first democratically elected female president – Vigdis Finnbogadottir. By 1999, more than a third of MPs were women.
In 2000, parental leave legislation came into effect. Every parent receives three months’ paid leave that is non-transferable. Parents then have an additional three months to share as they like.Because the pay is significant – 80% of salary – and because it’s on a use-it-or-lose-it basis, 90% of Icelandic fathers take up their paternal leave. This piece of social engineering has had a profound impact on men as well as women. Not only do women return to work after giving birth faster than before, they return to their pre-childbirth working hours faster, too. Research shows that, after taking the three months’ leave, fathers continue to be significantly more involved in childcare and do more housework. Sharing the parental responsibilities and chores from the beginning, it seems, makes a difference.
Almost 80% of Icelandic women work. Almost half of board members of listed companies are now women, while 65% of Iceland’s university students and 41% of MPs are female. Neverthless women still have less economic power than men – only 22% of managers are women; only 30% of experts on TV are women and, overall, men earn 14% more. Explanations vary: from women going into less well-paid professions, or just working part-time.
The Icelandic government has pledged to close the gender pay gap by 2022. And the women of the country continue to be highly organised and socially aware; one- third of Iceland’s women are members of a Facebook group – ironically named Beauty Tips – in which they actively discuss gender issues.