The world's best place to be a woman


EXCLUSIVE: SBS World News presenter Janice Petersen visits the feminist utopia of Iceland, where equality is seen from kindergarten to the boardroom.

Watching a man delicately paint a little boy’s fingernails didn’t shock me much. It was the fact that the man was the four-year-old’s teacher and the nail painting lesson was being taught alongside the 'three Rs' at an Icelandic school.

Recently I travelled to the top of the globe for Dateline, to report on how Iceland earned its reputation as the best place in the world for gender equality.

The World Economic Forum has given it that title nine times running; Australia is ranked 35th.

Janice Petersen in Iceland
Janice Petersen in Iceland.

The issue of equal pay is so serious here, it’s enshrined in law. Bigger companies must prove they pay men and women equally for working the same job. If they don’t, they get fined.

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Iceland’s second female Prime Minister, has pledged to close the gender pay gap by 2022.

Teaching them young

In Iceland, promoting gender equality starts at a young age – and sometimes it’s done in a radical way. At Laufásborg Infants School in Iceland's capital Reykjavik, attention is given to completely zapping gender stereotypes from the classroom.

The uniforms are genderless. Stereotypical girls’ and boys’ toys are treated as contraband. Creativity is king.

The chief architect of this model of teaching is Margrét Pála Ólafsdóttir, who’s dedicated her working life to smashing the patriarchy and shaking up children’s education – by radically reforming how gender is treated in the early years of schooling.

So yes, boys are taught the fine art of applying nail polish.

Reykjavik school
Boys get their nails painted at a school in Reykjavik.

“It's simply teaching them that they can be beautiful,” she told me.

“There is nothing in this world that is only for girls or women. Nothing. I have often been asked, ‘will your boys be gay?’ No, it's not happening like that. That's completely different. Just experience everything in life.”

There is nothing in this world that is only for girls or women.

- Margrét Pála Ólafsdóttir, Icelandic educator

It’s unashamedly progressive, but nonetheless the school enforces as an old-fashioned approach to teaching, which is falling out of favour in Australia – for many lessons at Laufásborg, boys and girls are segregated into different classrooms.

“Girls and boys are not having the same realities in schools,” Margrét says. “Boys are having much more attention than girls. Boys are having the majority of the space and time with the teacher. The girls, they are learning to wait.”

And so, the school changes tack in its approach for girls.

“We are teaching them to use their voice, to shout, to go out and be dirty and take space and don't think about consequences,” says Margrét.

Unravelling gender stereotypes

There’s deep curiosity about why this tiny island nation is so progressive and pro-active when it comes to gender equality. After my short time in Iceland, I wonder if they even have the luxury of being too gender-biased. The terrain and elements are so extreme, I figure men and women rely on each other to simply survive.

Iceland’s population is also very small, a mere 340,000 people (Australia’s annual population growth is higher than that number, according to the 2016 census). This surely makes it easier to tap into a collective consciousness and push cultural change.

The day I visit Laufásborg Infants School it’s bleak – the rain’s settled in and it’s about 7 degrees Celsius. It gives me a firm slap when I walk outside but the 4- and 5-year-old students who have put on what looks like snow gear, are being herded out the door and into the mud-soaked playground.

No child stands off to the side. No child whinges. Everyone dips their hands in the sodden earth and a line of pink-cheeked children feverishly jump in puddles.

“Children must get dirty and they must go outside every day,” declares Margrét.

Children must get dirty and they must go outside every day.

Before I can soak in too much of the scene Margrét, who has made good on her vision of genderless schools for 30 years is at me, asking me to follow her.

“Come, come” she orders, shooing me off in another direction.

Girls play with a hammer and nails.
Girls play with a hammer and nails.

She ushers me into a work shed where small girls are hammering nails into bits of discarded wood. I see tiny, soft fingers and the threat of pain.

It’s the stuff of nightmares for the average helicopter parent.

“We need to stop protecting our children from the truth,” pleads Margrét.

“Stop telling them the dentist won’t hurt them. Be honest and say, ‘It might hurt a bit but I’ll hug you and eventually the pain will go away,’” she says.

And thus, the hammering continues with vim and vigour. No one gets hurt.

Raising future thinkers

There are 19 of these schools in Iceland where children are taught to embrace the elements, fairness and danger. Environmental and social conditions we’d baulk at in Australia are tackled with gusto by kids and teachers here.

It’s the opposite of mollycoddling and the kids don’t seem to mind a jot.  More than a few parents like it too with one in 10 choosing to send their little ones to these schools.

But do these kids become fairer-minded citizens compared to the state school cohort?

“We didn't start with this model to have a lifelong effect … but it could help them later in life, maybe in cooperation with other people, maybe in being more daring to stand up for yourself and raise your voice when needed,” says Margrét.

“It might help them to have a broader idea of what a boy or a man and what a girl or a woman could do in life.”

I ask school mum, Ninja Omarsdottir if she thinks the school’s approach is helping her 4-year-old son Eric.

“It’s good that the boys are taught more tenderness and that the girls are more assertive,” she says.

"You can see just with the Me Too movement we need boys to break the stereotyping of what it means to be a man.”

It’s good that the boys are taught more tenderness and that the girls are more assertive.

- Ninja Omarsdottir, Parent

From boys painting fingernails to girls using hammers to bash nails, breaking stereotypes is part of everyday life for some of Iceland’s youngest citizens.

Educating from the bottom up and legislating from the top down seems to be playing a big role in helping to rocket Iceland to the top of the world on gender equality.

They seem hell-bent on smashing glass ceilings in society and the workforce, while many other countries do little more than politely tap at them.

Watch the full Dateline report - The Best Place to be a Woman - on Tuesday 10 July at 9.30pm on SBS. The program will be available after broadcast via SBS On Demand.

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