• The first women president of Iceland, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, in 1980. (Getty Images)
Is it the geysers? The volcanoes? The Viking heritage? What makes Iceland so good when it comes to gender equality?
Nicola Heath

28 Nov 2018 - 8:38 AM  UPDATED 28 Nov 2018 - 8:38 AM

Iceland is a tiny island located in the North Atlantic with a population of just 350,000, yet it leads the world in gender equality. 

For nine years running, Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report, which assesses nations’ treatment of women across four broad areas: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. 

We like to think that, as a nation, we punch above our weight, but Australia languishes down the list, coming in at number 35 in 2017. Iceland is not a utopia of gender equality – women make up just 22 per cent of managers and 30 per cent of experts on television, and violence against women remains a troubling issue – but on most metrics, the tiny island outperforms us, giving rise to the question: what can Iceland teach us about gender equality? 

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Women lead the way in politics

Iceland topped the WEF list for female political empowerment in 2017, with 48 per cent female representation in parliament and 40 per cent of ministerial positions occupied by women. Political empowerment was Australia’s weak spot: at the time of the report, women made up just 28 per cent of the parliament and occupied 24 per cent of ministerial positions.

We didn’t always lag behind Iceland: in 1915, Iceland gave the vote to female voters aged over 40 – 13 years after Australia mandated female suffrage. But the Nordic country snagged a significant milestone in 1980 when voters elected Vigdís Finnbogadóttir as president, the world’s first directly elected female head of state. Vigdís, a champion of women’s rights, won three more elections to occupy the largely ceremonial role for 16 years. 

In 2009, a year before Julia Gillard wrested the Australian prime ministership from an unsuspecting Kevin Rudd, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became Iceland’s first female prime minister. She was also the world’s first openly gay head of government. Jóhanna’s tenure as PM was less tumultuous than that of her Aussie counterpart, who endured constant discrimination in the top job – no ‘ditch the witch’ placards were waved in Iceland. Jóhanna weathered the global financial crisis, which crippled Icelandic banks, and was able to successfully execute her feminist agenda, curtailing the sex trade and banning strip clubs.

And while in Australia we endure a revolving door of mostly bloke PMs, in 2017, Katrín Jakobsdóttir became Iceland’s second female prime minister. “I don't see the struggle for women's rights as a box-ticking exercise, this is a battle for fundamental human rights and it demands a shift in our cultures – we need to change how we treat and perceive each other,” she told Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public broadcaster, in November 2018. “This is not a job of one generation, but many. And I want to look back and say that I played my part and that my government was a force for progress, not regression.”

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Closing the gender pay gap 

In 2018, the Icelandic parliament got serious about the gender pay gap, passing legislation requiring employers with more than 25 staff to undergo certification every three years to show they adhere to the Equal Pay Standard. The Icelandic gender pay gap has hovered in recent years between 14 and 18 per cent, despite the fact the country outlawed wage discrimination in the 1960s.

In Australia, the gender pay gap has been comparable to Iceland’s, measuring between 14 and 20 per cent over the past two decades. In May 2018, Australia’s full-time gender pay gap was 14.6 per cent, which means women take home around $245 less each week than men. Unlike Iceland, the government in Australia has so far refused to introduce penalties for wage discrimination or make companies publicly disclose salaries.

Embracing quotas

Quotas are a perennially controversial topic in Australia. Some resist them, believing they interrupt the normal functioning of the supposed meritocracy in which we live – which is why just 22 per cent of Coalition MPs in the federal parliament are female. 

But quotas and targets are effective – just look at Iceland, which – surprise, surprise – implemented a quota for company boards that requires women to fill 50 per cent of positions. Currently, 44 per cent of board members are female. In Australia, where there is no such quota, women occupy just 28.5 per cent of board positions in ASX200 companies. Three have no women at all on their boards. 

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When kids come into it

In Iceland, each parent is given three months of paid maternity or paternity leave that cannot be transferred from one to the other. Another three months’ paid leave can either be taken by one parent or shared between them. Childcare is also subsidised by local government. As a result, Iceland has a high rate of female workforce participation: 80 per cent, compared to 71 per cent in Australia, where the government-funded paid parental leave scheme is offered to one parent, in practice usually mothers.

If you’re not happy, do something about it

Icelandic women have not sat back and let gender parity come to them – they’ve fought for their equality. In 1975, women in Iceland, fed up with the status quo, went on strike. Up to 90 per cent of the country’s female population downed tools for the day – they refused to cook, clean, look after children or go to work. In Reykjavík, 25,000 women took to the streets to protest against gender inequality – a huge number in a population of 220,000. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, then the Artistic Director of the Reykjavík Theatre Company, took part in the strike. “What happened that day was the first step for women's emancipation in Iceland,” she later said. “It completely paralysed the country and opened the eyes of many men.”

Nicola Heath is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @nicoheath

Is Australia Sexist? premieres on SBS Australia, 4 December, 8.40pm, and will be available to stream at SBS On Demand.