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What is it like to be a woman in the world’s most equal country?

Iceland comes out of a new report on the gender gap very well. Four women from, or based in, the country share their thoughts

By Jessica Abrahams  

Houses in Reykjavík, Iceland's capital city

On Tuesday, the World Economic Forum published its annual Global Gender Gap Report, naming Iceland as the world’s most gender equal country for the eighth year running (the UK comes in at number 20). The report found no gap in educational attainment between men and women in Iceland, and a strong female representation among legislators, officials and managers. It is one of only five countries (alongside Norway, France, Latvia and Finland) to have broken the 30 per cent threshold for women on boards.

Yet just a day before the report was published, thousands of Icelandic women had left their offices at precisely 2:38pm—after which time they are said to effectively work for free due to the gender pay gap—and poured into the streets to protest about unequal pay. The World Economic Forum report calculates that, at the current rate of change, it will take 170 years for the pay and employment gap between men and women to be closed worldwide—but a separate estimate suggests that even in Iceland it will take 52 years.

So what is it really like to be a woman in Iceland today? I asked four women.

Una Torfadóttir, 16, school student and feminist activist

I’m a 16-year-old from Iceland. I’ve lived here my entire life and I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in Iceland because I haven’t tried anything else. But I do know something. I know that being a woman in Iceland is different from being a man, and that’s a problem.

Although Iceland receives much praise for having come so far—the furthest in the world, in fact—in the fight for gender equality, nothing about our society is perfect. Women here are still being sexually harassed; women are still being “slutshamed”; women are constantly being told that they are worth less than men; and still, in the year 2016, women on average get 14 per cent less pay than men.

It’s difficult to listen to voices who proclaim that Iceland is a paradise of equality because it gives the patriarchy an excuse to deny change. It’s too early to celebrate our victories; the fight is far from over. But it is important that we think about the injustice that women around the world are fighting, not only Icelandic women. The fact that we sit on top of these “scoreboards” of gender equality gives us a chance, an obligation, to speak out for the women who can’t. We fight, not only for ourselves but for women everywhere.

Hafdís Huld, 37, singer and former member of electronic band Gus Gus

I feel lucky to be born in Iceland, and I think we have a lot to thank our mothers’ generation for. In 1975, Icelandic women went on strike to protest the fact that they were making so much less than the men—less than 60 per cent, it is estimated. That day, 90 per cent of women walked out of their jobs to demand equality [a Gender Equality Act was passed the next year] and these are the women who raised my generation. When I was little, both my parents drove big lorries for a living and both cooked meals for my siblings and I, so I have always seen it as perfectly normal that men and women do the same jobs both inside and outside the home.

All through my childhood we had a female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. I think growing up here in the 80s and 90s with such a strong female role model has helped shape a generation that sees men and women as equals. My mum reminded me of a moment when I was six years old and was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. My answer was not a princess—no, I wanted to grow up to be president!

This week we had a repeat of the 1975 strike to highlight the fact that women still earn 14 per cent less than men overall. So even though it could be worse, it could still be better, and we will carry on our mothers’ fight until we have complete equality.

Kathryn Gunnarsson, 39, from Birmingham but now living in Reykjavik with her Icelandic husband and two children

Living and working in Reykjavik, I have seen that Icelandic women are strong in every sense. Across all generations, Icelandic women stand up for themselves and are treated with respect. If something isn’t right, and it needs fixing, they come together to get results. Take the gender pay gap marches, for example: the women of Iceland united to make their stand, and will continue to do so until the issue is fixed. There is a true sense of spirit amongst the women here. Social media helps unite: there is a Facebook group called “Góða systir” (Good sister) with over 50,000 members, where the women of Iceland post and discuss issues, and offer support for each other. It promotes women working together, rather than competing with or judging each other. It encourages us to make good choices when bringing up our daughters, and to teach them the importance of kindness and friendships.

One important issue for me is the flexibility around caring for children. Work places get it over here; a balance between work and family is important. Working hours are generally 8am to 4pm, so most families are home at 4:30 and can do evening activities and eat together—they can actually be a family. My new workplace fully understands that I have children and gives me full flexibility to meet their needs. My daughter is coming to work with me this afternoon, no questions asked. In my husband’s office they have just installed children’s areas on each floor. This really helps to empower women. It is respected that women contribute to the economy as much as men do, and it’s not frowned upon to be a working mother. Many new mothers go back to work after six months because there is such a good work/life balance.

Having lived and worked in both the UK and Iceland, there is a clear sense of pride about being a woman in Iceland and a definite sense of unity and freedom. Nowhere is perfect for women to live safely, with zero gender differences, but Iceland is the place we have chosen to bring up our two daughters, where they will be respected and raised to be strong women.

Birna Anna Björnsdóttir, 41, writer and partner at the consulting firm Sudvestur, based between Reykjavik and New York

Having lived in New York for about a decade now, I certainly see some of the advantages Icelandic women have compared to US women. The big issue—and to me this is a foundational one—is paid parental leave. In Iceland we have nine months for each child, which parents split between them [whereas in the US there is no statutory paid parental leave]. Having fathers participate is crucial. When I talk about this here in the US it sounds like some utopia that can only exist in a relatively small, rich country. But this is not luxury spending: it is an investment that pays back immeasurably. You’re basically making sure you keep your human capital in the workforce. In my mind, it is no coincidence that the countries with the best parental leave policies are generally also the most prosperous; the former contributes to the latter.

One great thing about Iceland is that the women are generally proud feminists—and a lot of the men, too. It’s certainly mainstream among the younger generations: thousands of women showed up to the spirited protest against the gender pay gap on Monday. Yet it’s always a bit of an internal conflict to reflect on Iceland’s status as the most “gender equal” country in the world. On the one hand, we are proud of how far we’ve come, but on the other hand, we know that we are far from having achieved perfect equality. It’s a sad fact about women’s rights in the world that even we, the top country according to the World Economic Forum measures, still have to fight on this front.

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