Published April 7, 2017
Being a woman in Iceland is pretty good: a female paradise in comparison to many other countries. But—and here’s the important part—it still isn’t as good as being a man in Iceland. As little as fifty years ago, just getting a stilettoed foot in the door of a boardroom or lab or parliament building was considered a victory. But now, women are no longer happy to be simply included, no longer content with just playing on the same field as the men. The field needs to be a level one. And this starts with wages.
According to Iceland’s Ministry of Welfare, women in Iceland are paid on average 7%-18% less than men. After years of campaigning by feminist groups, politicians in Iceland have finally implemented legislation to force businesses to publish their wages, proving employees are paid equally. I spoke with two women—Lára Björg Björnsdóttir, businesswoman and journalist, and Kolbrún Benediktsdóttir, district prosecutor—to discuss their thoughts on this legislation and what it is like to be a woman in the Icelandic workplace.
On the surface, both women have quite similar situations. They’re both at the top of their profession, of similar ages, with children. And yet, their experience in the workplace has been quite different. For most of her career, Lára has worked in the private sector, where wages are somewhat subject to the whims of a free market. And, “in the majority of places I’ve worked,” she told me, “I’ve had male co-workers who earn more than me. And I know that for a fact.”
Kolbrún, who works in the public sector, has found the opposite: in an environment where wages are decided by committees and are publically available for anyone to see, she’s never been aware of earning less than a man, because the threat of public scrutiny holds employers to account. People often feel the need to keep quiet about how much they’re paid.
“I’ve never understood this secrecy,” Kolbrún told me. “It’s never been a secret for me, how much I get paid. Of course it’s important for companies to be able to pull up the wages of people who have earned it, but if you have a valid reason for it then you shouldn’t need to keep it a secret.” Perhaps the stigma of talking about salaries has been allowed to flourish for the very fact that it allows employers to pay women less. Lára certainly thinks so: “Employers who say you can’t talk about your pay, that’s just a tool to keep a lid on everything.”
The wage gap is a practical injustice, but it is also an injustice in principle. Not only is there physically less money in women’s pockets, but it’s symbolic of a society that considers women less valuable than men. With this in mind, I asked both women if they had ever experienced sexism in the workplace. Lára’s eyes lit up fiercely as she said immediately, “I own my own company, I have fifteen years experience in writing, I have written a book… and I still have clients ask, ‘Do you have experience in that?’—and we’re talking seriously simple tasks. Would a forty-year-old man with my CV ever be asked that?”
Kolbrún, who claims she has never been paid less than a man, struggled to recall any instances of sexism. It is hardly surprising to me that a workplace with a genderless wage system such as hers also has a respectful work environment. Employers that respect their staff, encourage staff to respect each other. It’s pretty simple.
In many ways, the very nature of Lára and Kolbrún’s experiences prove that the act of publishing wages, which will now be compulsory across the country, makes a considerable difference to the wage gap. Not only does it imply that the wage gap will be lowered considerably, but it implies that we would, in time, see a less sexist, more respectful workplace.
I asked both women: “Is the future female?” Kolbrún contemplated for a while and with a steely look said, “A lot has changed, but we have to be aware that we’re not there yet, we can’t get complacent.” And with that same look, Lára responded: “I think the young women today are great. I have a lot of faith in them, they speak up. And the guys too. I have faith in the young people.” Reading this back makes me smile, because realism plus optimism and determination is the perfect recipe for change. One thing’s for sure—one day, being a woman in Iceland will be just as good as being a man in Iceland, and with these women at the top, that day is getting closer and closer.