For Icelanders, it is a source of pride to be the frontrunner in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for the ninth year in a row. Ranking at the top is a confirmation of the successes achieved in recent decades and inspires us to continue to work towards complete equality of status, influence and power of men and women.

What is the secret to Iceland’s success? What are the lessons learned? In short, it is that gender equality does not come about of its own accord. It requires the collective action and solidarity of women human rights defenders, political will, and tools such as legislation, gender budgeting and quotas.

Iceland, despite being an island, is not isolated from progress towards gender equality. As is the case worldwide, our incremental progress can firstly be attributed to the solidarity of women human rights defenders challenging and protesting the monopoly of power in the hands of men and the power of men over women.

Secondly, the success can be attributed to women taking power and creating alternatives to the male dominant “truths” and making the invisible realities of women visible, most importantly discriminatory practices including sexual harassment and abuse. Lastly, Iceland’s progress can be attributed to women and men sharing power with each other as decision-makers and gradually having more men supporting the give and take of gender equality.

As such, the Icelandic case is nothing exceptional. It has been influenced by cultural, political, religious, social, academic and economic currents that have washed ashore and been domestically cultivated and created.

Culturally, there exists a notion of “strong women”. Despite being mythical, it has its roots in reality, as women enjoyed certain liberties and had cultural and religious authority during the commonwealth period that lingered on throughout the ages. On the religious front, diversity was embraced in the “pre-modern”, pagan society. There were gods and goddesses, as well as women and men serving as cultural and religious authorities. Women were priestesses and oracles, poets and rune masters, merchants and medicine doctors, enjoying respect in society.

This religious diversity ended with the advent of Christianity in the year 1000 when the diverse group of Gods and Goddesses was replaced by one monolithic God. At the same time, women were no longer deemed "good enough" to publicly represent God, and despite relatively equal status, women did not have the right to vote or to be represented in Iceland’s parliament – the oldest in the world, established in 930.

Women began to fight for the right to be good enough. They partly succeeded in 1914 and 1915 when women were granted the legal right to be Protestant priests, and the right to vote and run as political candidates, respectively. However, there was a huge gap between the progressive, rights-based law development and prevalent cultural norms and societal reality, which kept men in their place of power enjoying their “first-mover advantage” and continued to hold women back.

This situation remained until a critical mass of educated women penetrated the fortresses surrounding the palaces of knowledge, the academia, and feminism became a mass movement in the 1960s and 1970s, uniting women in their struggle for equal rights and influencing politics.

During these decades, women began to take power to define and redefine the world we live in and even invent new “truths” from where they were standing. Feminism began to infiltrate theology with God referred to as She by the first woman ever to be inaugurated as a priest in Iceland in 1974, or 974 years after Iceland became Christian and 60 years after it became legal for women to serve as priests. Thirty-eight years after that, in 2012, Iceland’s first female bishop was inaugurated. It had taken a century.

On the political front, women’s solidarity by means of political organising has been instrumental in promoting gender equality in Iceland. During the period from 1915 to 1983, only 2%-5% of members of Parliament were women.

It is also important to note that the first Icelandic women elected to a municipal government in 1908 and to parliament in 1922 were represented by women’s lists, not the traditional political parties. When this political experiment was repeated several decades later with the establishment of the Women’s Alliance in 1982, it led to major changes and a jump in women’s participation in politics. The political platform of the Women’s Alliance consisted of “women’s demands”, such as childcare for children to enable women to participate in the labour market on an equal footing with men, which were supported by female constituents.

Subsequently, in 1983, for the first time in Icelandic history, there was a sharp increase in the number of women in parliament jumping from five to 15 MPs of a total of 60 in a single election. An Icelandic political scientist, Dr Auður Styrkársdóttir, has compared the waves of women’s democratic enfranchisements with natural upheavals, such as earthquakes or volcanoes. Unlike the steady rise in women’s representation in the other Nordic countries, male dominance in Iceland was only broken by women’s collective action and solidarity.

The Women’s Alliance ceased to exist in 1999 after working relentlessly from inside parliament, influencing the political debate and the political agendas of the traditional political parties. Gradually, “women’s issues” were brought into the political agendas of other parties and women in these parties began to serve a more meaningful role than previously, when they were the icing on the cake, a decorative flower within male-dominated political parties and the lists of candidates.

Women Good Enough to Eat, 1997
Women Good Enough to Eat, 1997
Image: The Icelandic Love Corporation

During the century that has passed since women got national suffrage, there has been a rise in the number of women running as candidates for elections. Equal sex ratio is still not enough if the aim is to reach gender equality in political representation. To reach that aim, women have to be placed high(er) on the list of candidates to have an equal chance to be elected into power. One of the success stories in Iceland is that among the long-established political parties, only one party does not apply some kind of gender quota rules, such as a “zipper system” when selecting men and women on its lists of candidates.

In 2016, women accounted for 48% of elected representatives in parliament (since recent elections it has dropped to 38%). It is also a great achievement in this long struggle that the number of women in the cabinet has, in recent years, begun to reflect the share of women in parliament. The executive power has been referred to as the highest glass ceiling. After more than 100 years, there is almost political equality.

In conclusion, the status of women in Iceland was, historically, relatively equal to men even though legal equality was not ensured until 1976. Still, every woman is rendered vulnerable if she does not have or is stripped of real power by a system that does not de jure or de facto protect women’s rights vis-a-vis men in case of conflict. This applies in particular to situations of violence against women and girls perpetrated by family members or strangers within or outside their homes.

The life of a woman in a system that does not protect her human rights and security is like a Russian roulette: women are at the mercy of “their masters” – good or bad men – because the system protects the interests of (potential) perpetrators of violence. In such a system, some women are lucky while others draw or are handed the short straw.

Consequently, historically and still today, the struggle of women human rights defenders is not about good or bad men per se. Instead, it is all about use and abuse of power and authority, namely converting a system where a culture of impunity prevails over a culture of accountability for violence against women (and men).

The struggle is aimed at changing the system – the normative and the legal rules governing our lives – which has been shaped by people with and in power. This is also the reason why women need to have equal power and to be in power. Simple as that.

The systemic political and economic empowerment of women went hand in hand with the “invasion” of feminist scholars into the cradle of knowledge in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in the emergence of a new reality that was previously unspoken and unseen. The term “sexual harassment” is a case in point. It was introduced in the 1960s, deriving its meaning from the experience of the so-far powerless and voiceless victims, the survivors, who were given a loudspeaker with this new feminist terminology.

Legislation prohibiting sexual harassment was introduced in Iceland as well as other predominantly western countries at the time. But the pervasive culture of male power and privilege meant that sexual predators continued to be protected despite the legal prohibition, by men and women alike, who were implicated in their crimes by either taking part by silencing the victims or by naming, blaming and shaming them.

Just before the allegations against Harvey Weinstein in the United States came to light, the Government of Iceland had collapsed after convicted sex offenders had their "civil standing" restored under legislation from the 19th century using the terminology “restoration of honour”. Information regarding the cases, originally withheld and later released, constituted a breach of trust in the minds of one of the smaller coalition partners, resulting in the dissolution of the government. In September, the respective clause in the law was repealed.

In general, it is impressive to see how social media is creating a wave of protest where women are speaking out, repeating #metoo and telling the world that they have had enough. This is happening in Iceland as it is elsewhere. The “business as usual” element of the “honour restoration cases” mobilised the survivors, their parents, feminists and the general public into a loud protest represented by the hashtag #höfumhátt, which means "Let's not be silenced".

What are the remaining challenges? In Iceland, as in the other Nordic countries, the welfare state is supportive of gender equality by granting parental leave to both parents resulting in not only more power sharing but also an increase in sharing of the responsibility for running a home and family. Ideas about masculinity are changing among young people which will most likely contribute to the elimination of gender segregation in the labour market in near future.

Image: Statistics Iceland

Still, there are challenges that remain to be resolved, not least the gendered reality we live in where so many things are assumed about individuals or groups on the basis of their sex, sexual orientation or identity. Such gendered assumptions and notions continue to cause problems such as how occupations predominantly held by women, such as nursing, are valued less than men’s occupations, such as construction. There is a gender pay gap for work of equal value despite the existence of a law on equal pay since 1961. Icelandic women have been protesting against this imbalance by going on general strike since 1975.

Image: Statistics Iceland

Now, more than 40 years later, equal rights are supported by political will, as evident in the introduction of the law on equal pay certification. This legislation is based on a tool called the Equal Pay Standard, which aims to eliminate the adjusted gender pay gap. The standard will apply to all companies and institutions with 25 full-time staff positions.

Implementing the standard will empower and enable employers to truly implement a management system of equal pay according to the principle of equal pay for equal work and work of equal value. They will thereby comply with the act on the equal status of men and women and fulfil the demands of international treaties, such as the International Labour Organization Conventions, the Beijing Platform of Action and the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The intention of the government to implement the Equal Pay Standard through legislation was widely debated in Iceland, just as every other legislative measure on the matter has been. In turn it has brought the gender equality debate into mainstream politics and policy-making, away from the margins where it often resides.

It is believed that the Equal Pay Standard will be instrumental in eliminating the gender pay gap. What’s the secret? Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.

Lead author: Magnea Marinósdóttir; contributing author: Rósa Erlingsdóttir; Equality Unit, Ministry of Welfare, Iceland