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COLUMN: Iceland close to closing gender gap

In honour of International Women’s Day, Vernon writer examines where one country is seeing success
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Eliza Reid and her husband, Gudni Johannesson are shown in this handout image during his campaign in Iceland. Voters in Iceland have elected a new president, and in doing so have made the Canadian woman the Nordic nation’s new first lady. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Hakon Broder Lund

International Women’s Day celebrates the gains women have made over the years in attaining gender equality with men in the areas of rights, responsibilities, and opportunities, and also points out the progress still to be made.

On March 8 each year, women around the world gather to celebrate women’s achievements, to discuss the conditions under which women live, and to protest against injustices and violations of their human rights.You might expect that one of the G7 or G20 countries (Canada is a member of both) would rank the highest in gender equality, but that isn’t so. No country has achieved 100 per cent equality, but one country has closed its gender gap by 90.8 per cent.

That country is Iceland, making it #1 on the Global Gender Gap Index. Canada is 25th. The pandemic set back achievement of gender equality considerably, and in the past two years no countries have made significant progress. The estimated length of time remaining until the gender gap worldwide declines to zero is a whopping 132 years.

Iceland has rated #1 for 13 years in a row, which is a notable achievement. What is it like to live in a country that has almost achieved gender parity in everyday life? We could look at graphs and tables of data and examine the numbers, but that is impersonal and doesn’t give a feel for what gender equality feels like for women in Iceland or Canada. Fortunately, A Canadian woman who lives in Iceland has studied this aspect of Icelandic society and has written a book about it, including her personal experiences as a woman, a wife, a mother, a journalist, a businesswoman, and spouse of the President of Iceland (hers is an unofficial, unpaid position)! Eliza Reid, author of Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They are Changing the World, 2022 provides the reader with a look into not only her own life in Iceland, but also into the lives of Icelandic women whom she interviewed.

But they have many supports in order to do that, while still attempting to have a good work/life balance. Iceland has a free health care program and free health insurance, although a small fee is charged for some services, up to a maximum of $900 Cdn per year, depending on income. When Reid was pregnant with her first child, she paid a one-time fee of about $5 US to see a doctor. Reid and her husband, Gudni Johannesson, benefitted from Iceland’s well-trained corps of mid-wives as the couple has four children. Mid-wives have six years of post-secondary training and accompany women through pre-natal to post-natal care. Iceland ranks well in this area, although it faces challenges in finding enough qualified health care workers, managing wait times for care, and dealing with staff burn out. Remote and rural health care still needs improvement, as well. As most women work in Iceland, good health care is important in pregnancy so they can continue to work equally with men and not require time off.

In Iceland, women are expected to have children and to also work outside the home. When their children are young, parents in Iceland are provided with generous maternity and paternity leaves. A parent who works more than 25 per cent of regular work hours is entitled to six months of leave and receives payments of up to 80 per cent of regular income to a maximum of approximately $5,600 Cdn per month. Each parent may take six months leave; single parents receive 12 months. Leave arrangements are flexible, depending on arrangements made with their employer. Reid and her husband used their parental leave to good advantage, taking all the time allowed. The leave allows for equality in childcare and household chores.

Studies have found that when fathers take paternity leave, they have better relationships with their children as they grow, and form stronger bonds with them and take more responsibility for their care. As well, their relationship with their partner is stronger, and their participation in household tasks is greater. Reid found this to be true in her family, although her husband had some different ideas of parenting from hers, such as taking the baby out for a day’s outing without so much as a spare diaper in hand.

After parental leave ends, women who return to work need affordable, responsible, and qualified childcare. Reid found the government-subsidized childcare services in Reykjavik invaluable after her and Johannesson’s parental leaves ended and their children had reached the age of one year. Most childcare is under the purview of the municipalities in Iceland and fees are subsidized by them.

Parents pay a subsidized fee for the first child, but the fees are reduced for each subsequent child. When Reid and Johannesson’s fourth child was born, the other three children were in kindergarten/preschool with a trained child minder, and Reid could spend her time with the baby. That’s not to say that she didn’t have the usual responsibilities that women shoulder: doing laundry, making meals, keeping track of everyone’s schedule, cleaning, getting up in the night with children, etc. Even in Iceland, with its enviable record of gender equality, women take on the load of most of the household duties. But the free health care, generous parental leave, and quality child care ensure equality of opportunities in the workplace.

Iceland offers free education to the end of the secondary level and free tuition at most post-secondary institutions.

In Iceland, 41 per cent of women of working age have a degree compared to 29 per cent of men.

But, despite the number of women who have a university education, it is still true in Iceland that there is a significant difference in the workforce in terms of numbers, advancement, and pay equity between women and men. In Iceland in 2021, 61.67 per cent of women of working age were employed compared to 70.5 per cent of men. This disparity is often attributed to women leaving the workforce to have and take care of children.

In the same year, Iceland’s gender pay gap was 10.2 per cent.

Iceland legislates a ratio of 60/40 for men to women on boards of companies and as executives. An amendment to laws on corporations in Iceland that came into effect in 2013 established quotas for gender on boards and in executive positions of private and public companies, but only for companies with more than 50 employees. There are requirements for reporting advances and providing reasons for not meeting targets. Fines can be levied for non-compliance. Many companies in Iceland have already reached those requirements and report regularly. But, progress is slow and efforts are ongoing to improve the balance of gender representation on boards of corporations.

In the upper echelons of the corporate world, women fare dismally, in spite of initiatives by regulatory bodies to increase the numbers. Iceland was named #2 on The Economist’s 2022 Glass Ceiling List, having achieved female CEOs in only 13 per cent of the top 800 companies in Iceland. Thirteen per cent is a sad achievement and is far from gender equality in the so-called C-suite.

The last area that the Global Gender Gap Index examines is the political sphere. Here Iceland excels. Iceland’s prime minister is a woman, Katrin Jakobsdottir. In Iceland’s Parliament, the Althingi, 47.6 per cent of members are female and 41.6 per cent of ministers are female. Another first for Iceland was the election in 1980 of a female president, Vigdis Finnbogadóttir, who was the first woman in the world to hold such a position, one which she held for 16 years. Women are highly involved in local politics as well.

Reid has no official title as the spouse of the president, but she has put her own stamp on her role when she accompanies Johannesson on his official travels. She stated, “I am not my husband’s handbag,” meaning that she is not just a decoration for him on trips. She follows her own path as a journalist, author, and co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat. Her motto has become, “Equality is my right. It’s yours, too.”

We all need to persevere in working towards that goal.

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Jennifer Smith

About the Author: Jennifer Smith

Vernon has always been my home, and I've been working at The Morning Star since 2004.
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