Now & Next: The Best Place To Be A Woman?

Posted on 01 March 2019

In the battle for gender equality Iceland is leading the world. The tiny island is pioneering news ways to close the gender pay gap, root out stereotypes and get more mothers back to work.

The Best Place To Be A Woman?

Today, women around the globe have less access to power, wealth and education than men. But one tiny island is leading the world in bridging these gaps.  Iceland is pioneering ways to get more mothers back to work, to root out gender stereotypes and to close the pay gap.

Ásdís Eir Símonardóttir
HR Consultant, Reykjavik Energy
It’s a human rights issue isn’t it?  Paying the same wage for equally valuable jobs.

Could Iceland inspire the world to solve one of its greatest problems?

Margrét Pála Ólafsdóttir
Founder, Hjalli School ​

Equality is absolutely the key to everything.


Iceland has topped gender equality rankings for nearly a decade.  One of the secrets to their success: start early.  This kindergarten in the capital of Reykjavik focuses on challenging extreme gender stereotypes before they take root in boys and girls.

Margrét Pála Ólafsdóttir
Founder, Hjalli School

For boys for example, always being strong, always decisive, always taking charge, they will end up bullying, fighting, breaking rules. We do it with the girls as well.  If you are always helpful, caring, thinking about others, always looking at a friend for acceptance, you will have forgotten about yourself. We need to get away from the extreme qualities. We need to get more in the middle, all of us.

It’s a mission that has led to the creation of 17 schools across this tiny country.  All focused on developing a healthy balance of characteristics in both sexes. Girls and boys are separated to allow girls to nurture traits traditionally view as masculine, like being bold, independent.

Do you want help, or by yourself?

By myself.

And taking risks. And boys are given time to learn traits traditionally viewed as feminine.  Like being more group orientated, empathetic and caring. And the signs are that this is working. Research suggests that in later years, children from this school have a greater understanding of gender equality when compared to children from other schools.

Margrét Pála Ólafsdóttir
Founder, Hjalli School

There is nothing like a quick fix to this huge inequality in the world.  But if we all do a little bit here and there and there…  yes, then at last we will get some results.

Iceland is also promoting gender equality by encouraging fathers to share the childcare burden with mothers.  In 2000, it introduced what is known as a Daddy Quota. Three months statutory paternity leave. It is an allowance that goes much further than most other countries in the world.  Here, over 70% of fathers take up the full three months leave.  Why? Because the State covers 80% of his salary during this period, up to a cap of $4,600 a month. One beneficiary of this generous system is Igor Bianason, who is looking after his son, Vala.  Igor believes the high cost of the Daddy Quota to tax payers is justified because it helps get more women in to work.

Igor Bianason

Imagine you were hiring someone for a new position, you had applications from a man and a woman.  You would be much less likely to take into the equation that the woman could have a child in the future and go on leave because the man is also going to do that.  So it does create a more equal field out there.

But even in Iceland, men are still paid nearly 6% more than women for similar work.  This year, Iceland became the first country in the world to pass legislation, not just to expose but to tackle the gender pay gap.  Companies with over 25 employees, like Reykjavik Energy, now have to prove they are paying men and women equally for similar jobs. Every job at the company must be measured against a set of criteria. This produces a score. For jobs with the same score, workers must be paid the same. When Reykjavik Energy used the pay calculator, the inequalities came into sharp and immediate focus.

Ásdís Eir Símonardóttir
HR Consultant, Reykjavik Energy

We noticed that there was a pay gap there between the unskilled workers that were outside and the unskilled workers inside. The outside unskilled workers are mainly men and the unskilled workers inside, that’s the cleaning staff, the staff in the kitchen, that’s mostly women.  What’s important to keep in mind is the gender pay gap it’s not there because there’s a couple of evil men making decisions to pay women less.  It’s this unconscious bias that we all have. We place more value on traditionally male dominated jobs.

The company rectified this by raising the wages of its female employees.  Critics of the law point out there will be significant financial consequences for companies as they rectify their pay inequalities.  But many argue this is a necessary price to pay.

Ásdís Eir Símonardóttir
HR Consultant, Reykjavik Energy
It’s a human rights issue, isn’t it?  Paying the same wage for equally valuable jobs. Having a law that requires companies to have this, it makes everyone accountable.

Gender equality will be an ever more pressing challenge for wealthy countries across the world.  Could the ambitious measures being tested in Iceland provide practical solutions?

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