On 24 October, thousands of women walked out of their jobs to protest sexual harassment, the persistent income gap, and other forms of gender-based discrimination. They gathered at Arnarhöll in central Reykjavík under the slogan of “Don’t Change Women, Change the World.” The coordinated walk-out was at 14:55, in keeping with the assertion that women are on average only paid for 74% of an eight-hour day, when compared to men. Amongst the protesters were Iceland’s second female Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, and the women in her staff. Speakers at the rally included Iceland’s first female prime minister, and the world’s first openly queer head of government, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, in addition to Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir, the newly-elected insurgent chair of the labour union Efling. The event also included performances from prominent singers and groups from many genres of music, and attendance was so great that bus routes had to be changed to transfer people to the event.
Slow and Steady wins the race?
This form of direct action was an intentional reference to the first Women’s Day Off, held in 1975. On 24 October that year, nearly all women in Iceland did not go to their jobs and/or did none of the housework. Men knew it was coming and planned accordingly, but it was still a very effective demonstration. One of the key organisers, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, would be elected President five years later, becoming Iceland’s and the world’s first elected female head of state. Other “Days Off” were held in 1985, 2005, 2010, and 2016. 2005 marked the shift from a whole day off to the symbolic walk-out; that year it was at 14:08. In 2010 it was 14:25 and in 2016 it was 14:38. At that current rate of change, women’s average pay will not equal men’s until 2047.
Choosing the Correct Frame
The day after the protest, Minister of Justice Sigríður Á. Andersen of the Independence Party posted a Facebook status in which she cherry-picked a statistic from a ministerial report that showed only a five percent pay gap in Iceland. This is true when men and women have the same job. Former Minister of Social Affairs Þorsteinn Víglundsson criticised Sigríður’s narrow reading, pointing out that social factors—like the oft-cited “glass ceiling”—keep women out of higher positions. Less than a fifth of managerial positions are held by women. In addition, fields dominated by women are not valued as highly as stereotypically male fields, even if they require a similar level of education. Earlier this year, midwives had to fight hard to be paid the same wage as nurses, even though being trained as a midwife requires more years of education than a nursing degree.
Þorsteinn was the author and proponent of Iceland’s landmark equal pay law. Another equal pay law had been on the books for decades with little effect, but Þorsteinn’s new legislation requires companies with more than 25 employees to periodically prove they are paying men and women the same for the same work. Enforcement has gotten off to a rocky start, though: the goal of “same pay for the same work” has nearly been reached, but that is too limited of a metric for complacent management.
Themyscira This Is Not
Iceland is often regarded as the most feminist country in the world. It has made impressive strides toward equality and is ranked highly on many measures, but it is not perfect. The #MeToo movement that swept around the world, particularly the entertainment industry in the United States, made its way to this Nordic dreamland. Many women, and some men, in the country used the hashtag to share their experiences of sexual harassment, assault and rape, though few men have been outed as perpetrators. Iceland has strict libel laws and they may be keeping names out of the stories. However, that may be changing. Several months ago the CEO of Reykjavík Energy was implicated in a sexual harassment controversy. The survivor went public because of inaction within the company, claiming management ignored her complaints because of the CEO’s good job performance.
A study released at the beginning of the year found that only 11 percent of CEOs in large Icelandic companies are women. This is despite a law requiring at least 40 percent of board members be women. Business is not the only area still struggling with this issue. Last year, Social Democrat city councilor Heiða Björg Hilmisdóttir gathered stories of sexism from women in every party from right to left, further demonstrating a systemic problem.
Iceland has made great strides since the first Women’s Day Off, and women have contributed immensely to all aspects of life in the country, but a cracked glass ceiling still holds women back.