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? Canadian 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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