How to enforce gender equality? Iceland tests the waters

A new law requiring Iceland's biggest companies to prove that they offer men and women pay equality went into effect on Jan. 1st. Activists say it illustrates the vital role that top-down accountability plays in effecting lasting change. Part 1 of Reaching for Equity, a global series on gender and power.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A woman works in the logistics department of Ossur, an international company that makes prostheses, in Reykjavik, Iceland. Ossur is certified as a company that has equal pay as part of a gender equality requirement recently passed by the government.

Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir recalls the autumn afternoon when she, along with nearly every woman in Iceland, didn’t show up. To their jobs, to clean their homes, to care for their babies. It was a protest against low wages and undervalued work. It was 1975.

That is widely seen as the start of Icelandic women’s formidable march towards gender equality. Ninety percent of Iceland’s female population joined in, shutting down entire industries. Newspapers shrank that day, and some flights were canceled.

“Women showed their solidarity, that they are many, that they can be a real change factor,” says Ms. Gísladóttir, who was studying history at university at the time and went on to help found the first women’s political party in Iceland's modern history. Later she became mayor of Reykjavik, and then Iceland’s foreign minister.

Yet ironically, despite all the gains women have made since that fall day, the main injustice they were protesting then – unequal pay for equal work – has continued to dog this Nordic nation. Now, more than 40 years later, Iceland has taken a radical new approach: punishing companies that pay women less than men.

A new law requiring companies to earn official certification that they offer equal pay went into effect on January 1 for the country’s largest employers. The first of its kind in the world, the law puts Iceland once again at the forefront of the global women’s rights movement.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Women work in the assembly department of Ossur, an international company that makes prosthetics, in Reykjavik, Iceland. The company did not need to make any changes in employee's salaries as equal pay was already being given to its workers regardless of gender.

And as the #MeToo movement continues to fight from the bottom up against sexual harassment, gender violence, and the sexism that underpins them, for many here the new law in Iceland underlines the vital role that top-down accountability plays in effecting lasting change.

“I think our experience shows us how important legal measures are, because gender equality doesn’t happen of its own accord, it simply doesn’t,” says Rósa Guðrún Erlingsdóttir, head of the equality unit at Iceland’s Ministry of Welfare. “If politicians decide to wait until the people are ready, or until nobody is going to oppose some legislative changes, nothing will happen.”

Still no gender paradise

By many measures, Iceland is already the best place to be a woman. The World Economic Forum has ranked it the most gender equal nation in the world for nine consecutive years for women’s workforce participation, educational attainment, health, and political empowerment.

The notion of the “strong Icelandic woman” dates back centuries, some even say to paganism when goddesses and priestesses commanded religious respect. It persisted culturally as men went to sea and left women with full authority at home.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Valur Hlidberg plays on frozen lake Tjornin, locally known as "the Pond," in Reykjavik, Iceland. Hlidberg took parental leave from his job as a pilot when his boys were younger. Parental leave, which gives both moms and dads non-transferrable time off, is considered one of the most significant policies for gender equality in Iceland.

Launching one of the earliest suffragist movements, Icelandic women won the right to vote in 1915. But the modern women’s rights movement crystallized on the 1975 march. Five years later Iceland was the first country to directly elect a female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. Two years after that, women founded the Women’s List, a feminist political party that paved the way to political empowerment.

Iceland's 2008 banking crisis – for which women bore practically no responsibility because all the top bankers were men – marked the start of a renewed push toward political parity, says Brynhildur Heiðar-og Ómarsdóttir, the executive manager of the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association.

In 2009, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became Iceland’s first female prime minister. Feminist-friendly legislation quickly followed. The purchase of sex was criminalized, penalizing prostitutes’ clients, not the women themselves. The next year Iceland mandated that women should fill 40 percent of seats on company boards. Strip clubs were banned in 2010. In the 2016 election, women won nearly half the seats in parliament, one of the highest percentages in the world.

This has not made Iceland into a gender paradise. The #MeToo campaign has arrived here with a fury, since sexual harassment and violence against women remain problems as stubborn as the pay gap. On October 24th 2016, Icelandic women made international headlines when they organized a variation of the 1975 march, leaving their jobs at exactly 2:38 p.m., after which time they said women worked for free for the rest of the day, compared to men’s wages.

“We’ve now been at the top of the World Economic Forum list for the gender gap for nine years running,” says Ms. Ómarsdóttir. “That fact doesn’t say anything about how good things are in Iceland, but how bad things are in the rest of the world.”

Pay the women or pay a fine

Now Iceland is raising the stakes on the pay front. The Equal Pay Standard certification is mandatory for public and private companies with 25 or more employees, an estimated 2,000 entities. The law, which went into effect for the biggest employers in Iceland on January 1st, will be monitored by the government’s Center for Gender Equality, and if a company fails to comply it will face hefty daily fines.

When the certification was conceived in talks among unions, employers and the government about ten years ago, it was designed as a voluntary measure. And Hannes Sigurðsson, deputy director general at the Confederation of Icelandic Employers, says it should have stayed that way. The new legal obligation is a drastic and costly step that will not necessarily narrow the pay gap, he says.

Yet Maríanna Traustadóttir, who specializes in gender issues at the Icelandic Confederation of Labor and who was also involved in the original negotiations, says she was frustrated by how slowly companies adopted the voluntary certification. The average adjusted pay gap between men and women has been stuck at around 7.6 percent for many years.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Maríanna Traustadóttir, with the Icelandic Confederation of Labor, speaks about equal pay for equal work.

“We have been fighting the gender pay gap for decades, we have tried everything,” Ms. Traustadóttir says. She says the most important principle behind the new law is to ensure equal pay for work of equal value. “The companies and institutions, when they reclassify their whole job…system, have to ask, are the women working in the canteen serving food, and the driver, doing work of equal value?”

Þórunn Auðunsdóttir, a human resources manager at Össur, a manufacturer of prosthetics, says her company agreed to voluntary certification last year. While the process was time consuming, she says, the firm was found to be in compliance with certification standards.

“We always have gender glasses on,” she says. “We always try for equality in each department; people like it like that, it’s more fun for everyone.”

But Mr. Sigurðsson says that the law is controversial among his 2,000 business members, even if they do not dare to speak up.

“No one wants to stand up and say, ‘I’m against this measure that has this good intention,’” he says. "But I know that in their hearts, most business leaders are not in favor of such a measure.”

Nonetheless, the law is essential, insists Gísladóttir, who is now the human rights and democracy boss at the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Achieving gender parity takes political will, funding and a strong women’s movement like #MeToo, she says. But legal enforcement is key.

“I have seen through my work that somehow legislation (on women’s rights) is not taken as seriously as other legislation, that somehow it is not seen as binding,” she says. “So enforcing it is really important." 

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