From Iceland — For A Better Society

For A Better Society

Published July 23, 2014

For A Better Society
Gabríel Benjamin
Photo by
Juli Vol

It seems that in every mention of Icelandic women by the foreign media, Iceland is praised as a feminist utopia where women are completely equal to men on all fronts, and to a certain extent, these assertions are correct. Iceland had the world’s first female head of state (who happened to also be an unmarried mother, for what it’s worth). It generally has greater female participation in politics than most other developed countries. A report by Save The Children ranked Iceland as the fourth best place to be a mother, and The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report has ranked Iceland as having the smallest gender-based gap in the world since 2009. Despite such great scores, however, many argue that Iceland still has a ways to go to reach complete gender equality. We reached out to two people that are involved in the fight for equality to hear their takes on the matter.


Ingibjörg Elíasdóttir is a lawyer for Iceland’s Centre for Gender Equality.

Do you think Iceland deserves to be called the ‘best place to be a woman’?
I think Iceland is definitely one of the best places to live, both for women and men. The standard of life is quite high, the unemployment rate is low, the education level is high etc. Talking about women in particular, and looking at being a woman in Iceland in an international context, you can say that it is good to be a woman in Iceland and better here than in most countries. I find it hard to say that it is the very best place to be, but it’s one of the best places for sure.

In what ways are women and non-binary people lagging behind men when it comes to their treatment in or by society?
In Iceland, as in all other countries I know of, women’s wages tend to be significantly lower than men’s, and it seems to be difficult to bridge this pay gap. I’m not an expert in the situation of non-binary people, but we at the Centre for Gender Equality have been notified of examples of discrimination in the workplace against people that identify in that manner. In order to combat this and secure the legal rights of minority groups we need much broader non-discrimination legislation in Iceland.

What improvements have we seen with regard to gender equality in the last year?
On the first of September 2013, a gender quota law came into effect that requires at least a 40/60 ratio on the boards of companies with more than 50 employees. This is a great step forward for gender equality in Iceland where women have not had a significant presence in the corporate world. Another positive thing is that after the municipal elections this May, the ratio of women and men in local government is closer to being equal than ever before: women are now 44% of those elected for local government.

In what way could Iceland become a more egalitarian society?
Regarding gender equality, tackling the pay gap and breaking down gender stereotypes comes first to mind, especially with regards to the labour market. Eliminating violence against women is a very important battle that we have ahead of us. Talking of egalitarianism in a broader sense, we need to adopt better legislation securing equal rights for all and banning all forms of discrimination against minority groups. It is not enough to have laws on the equal rights and equal status of women and men—we need to do better than that.

How can ordinary citizens help create that society?
They can stay alert and for instance let us at the Centre for Gender Equality know of incidences of gender-based discrimination. Everyone in their daily lives can work on eliminating gender stereotypes and treating everyone they meet with respect, always.

Steinunn Best Place For Women

Steinunn Rögnvaldsdóttir is the former spokesperson for Iceland’s Feminist Association and is now working on a book about abortions in Iceland.

Do you think Iceland deserves to be called the ‘best place to be a woman’?
I think the focus on which country is the “best place to be a woman” isn’t helpful. This is not a competition. But we are certainly doing well in some aspects of the gender equality struggle, and not as well in others. It’s good to share the experiences and practices that are proving useful in achieving gender equality, but we have to keep focusing on a) keeping up the good work where things are in fact going well and b) improving ourselves on the issues where we can do better.

In what ways are women and non-binary people lagging behind men?
There are numerous ways in which they are second-class citizens such as with the gender-based pay gap and gender segregated labour market, as well as the prevalence of gender-based sexual violence, sexism in media and pop-culture, and sexism and hate-speech in general. Society’s tendency to give more respect to men and male qualities over women and female qualities is also out of order.

What improvements have we seen with regard to gender equality in the last year?
I want to be optimistic that positive changes are going to come from within the police. Following a report on the issue last year, there has been a lot of discussion about the status of women on the force. It was also positive that laws about gender quotas on boards of firms came into action last autumn (although these mostly benefited educated, upper-class women). The most positive thing about the fight for gender equality in the last year has been the debate, how active it is, how critical and fun and brave the feminists participating in it are, and how many people engage in feminist activism one way or another.

In what way could Iceland become a more egalitarian society?
I think there is space for improvement in almost all spheres of our society. There are people working on many fronts to achieve more equality and if they were given more support, they could undoubtedly do more. There are too many active projects to list here, but I think one deserves a special mention. Research, data and experience suggest that struggling minorities and subordinated groups in society almost always have in common that they their economic situation is worse than the privileged and those keeping them down. So social justice, adequate wages for all and a good and strong welfare system are therefore probably the most important qualities required to becoming a more egalitarian society.

How can ordinary citizens help create that society?
Simple: Participate in feminist activism. Go to a meeting, write a piece about equality, don’t laugh at a sexist joke, try to influence others, don’t let your friends make sexist comments without calling them out on it, join a feminist group, write a letter to the media when they fuck up, be critical, think about inclusiveness, ask your boss about the workplace’s equal pay policy (including your own salary), share the household chores equally with your partner, discuss equality and feminism with your family, do whatever you can. It all counts.

See Also:

It Doesn’t Matter What You’re Wearing

So What’s This Feminist Utopia I Keep Hearing About?

Natural Transition

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