From Iceland — Being Best In The World Ain't Good Enough

Being Best In The World Ain’t Good Enough

Published October 10, 2013

Being Best In The World Ain’t Good Enough
Gabríel Benjamin
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Iceland is often hailed as a beacon of equality in an otherwise patriarchal world. We have elected several women into positions of power, including Vigdís Finnbogadóttir as the first female president and Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir as the first openly lesbian prime minister, and in the 2013 elections just under 40% of MPs were female. Not only that, but The World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Gender Gap Report has repeatedly ranked Iceland as the most egalitarian country, citing women’s good health, education and political empowerment.

However, Chair of the Centre for Gender Equality Kristín Ásgeirsdóttir says this ranking gives us a skewed picture of reality, as women’s economic participation is lagging behind with a prevalent gender-based wage gap. “The wage gap is what lowers our otherwise good rating with the [aforementioned] report, but it is comparable to other countries,” Kristín said. “According to reports from the EU, there is generally a 16% wage difference in Europe. To address this, each ministry, institution, company and municipality needs to go through its finances with a fine comb.”

It seems most institutions have yet to do so, as a recent study commissioned by the Association of Academics (BHM) showed that men have on average 8.4% higher salaries than women in jobs that require a university degree. Head of BHM Guðlaug Kristjánsdóttir said in an interview with RÚV that this wage gap cannot be attributed to anything other than the employee’s gender as all other factors had been accounted for, including working hours, education, age, and responsibilities.

The problem is systemic

A gender studies assistant professor at the University of Iceland, Gyða Margrét Pétursdóttir, said she believes the wage gap exists for a number of reasons, chief of which are society’s ideas about gender roles.

“In my qualitative research, I’ve examined the ideas that men and women have regarding wages and job expectations,” Gyða said. “A large part of the male identity seemed to revolve around getting a high salary and basing one’s self-worth on its numerical value. Women, on the other hand, seemed to be more willing to justify lower wages with other factors, such as job satisfaction.”

Although a 2003 survey commissioned by the Centre for Women’s and Gender Research (RIKK) revealed that men and women request raises or promotions as often, Gyða said that similar research has shown that women tend to ask for lower raises than men. “When third party negotiators are involved, they generally ask for higher salaries for men than they do for women. I feel this is the root of this problem, that women’s work is evaluated as being worth less than men’s work,” she explained.
“Surveys have shown that the group with the highest wages are often married men who have children,” Gyða said. “Men get these wages because they are supposed to be earning for their whole families,” she said. “Women don’t get the same status, wages or career mobility because society expects them to also run the household.”

Following the economic collapse, men and women’s wages became more in line with each other, but only because men’s wages had gone down, Gyða explained, noting that the gap is increasing again as Iceland recovers from the recession. We reached out to director of BHM Stefán Aðalsteinsson who agreed with Gyða’s sentiment. “During the collapse overtime was cut, as were transportation expenses, both of which generally benefit men more than women,” he said. “Now things are going back to the way they used to be, with men working longer hours, and we worry it will further increase the pay gap.”

Sólveig Jónasdóttir, a spokesperson for SFR, echoed Stefán’s concerns. “Everything was cut in the recession, bringing men and women’s wages closer together,” she said, “and history shows that if nothing is done to address the gap, it will grow.” SFR recently undertook extensive corrective measures to address the wage gap through collective agreements and brought their gender gap from 10.9% down to 7%.

“The problem is systemic,” Gyða said, “and it affects both men and women; women are not given the same opportunities as men in the workplace, and it is rarely socially acceptable for men to take as active a part in their children’s upbringing.”

Shifting responsibility

Gyða agreed with Kristín that employers need to lead from the front, ensuring equal opportunities and working conditions for their employees, but they often lack awareness of their social prejudices. “I don’t want to suggest that any supervisor means to discriminate between men and women, but there are several ways in which people are unconsciously biased in favour of men, overlooking women’s contributions,” she said. “There are harmful ideas prevalent in our culture that we do not see without donning ‘gender glasses’ and analysing our assumptions.”

Wearing these gender glasses requires individuals to keep their eyes open for privilege, whether it is based on class, gender, sex, or race. “By being aware of it, people can at least get a chance to react to the privilege,” Gyða said. Despite employment law, which prohibits companies from discriminating against applicants or employees because of gender, women have run into the obstacle of not knowing what their male co-workers are earning.

Gyða pointed out that the new equality laws of 2008 offer a solution, as they permit employees to disclose their salaries to a third member. “It is the privileged party’s responsibility to inform the disadvantaged of the state of play, and I entreat all men to do so,” Gyða said. “The struggle for gender equality has often taken on the form of blaming the victim, as if it is women’s fault for not having the same opportunities as men. If society tells you that you and your actions are worth less than a man’s, how can you be expected to fight for equality? We need to shift the responsibility onto the privileged, to do their part in making a fairer society.”

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