Gender Inequality

Iceland's reaction to the 2008 crash helped make it the best place in the world to be a woman

People walk in the mist of sulphuric fumes at the site of the Great Geysir in southwestern Iceland February 15, 2013.          REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov (ICELAND - Tags: TRAVEL)

After the financial crash in 2008, Iceland replaced many of it's leaders with women. Image: REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Joanne Lipman
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Among financial journalists, the gallows-humor joke was that there wouldn't have been a crisis if we had "Lehman Sisters" instead of Lehman Brothers. And it's true, as writer Michael Lewis noted in his book "Boomerang," that the U.S. and Iceland had that in common: women had virtually nothing to do with the disastrous financial bets in either country.

What's more notable, though, is how each country responded. In the U.S., the men who crashed the economy remained at their posts. In Iceland, the men were sent to jail. Women replaced them. Two of Iceland's three banks named women as their new presidents. The entire Icelandic government resigned, right up to the prime minister, the swashbuckling cheerleader of the business Vikings. He too was replaced by a woman, Jóhanna Sigurdarծottir, the first openly lesbian leader of any country in history.

The head of Iceland's Chamber of Commerce, also a woman, spoke for many when she derided the "man-made" crisis as a "penis competition" among bankers.

It was an extraordinary phenomenon. It's as if an entire population rose up, unified, with a single objective: to flush the testosterone out of its system. It flew in the face of thousands of years of history, turning upside down a culture that had always celebrated its bloodthirsty Viking heritage.

The women's takeover was a spectacle the world had never seen. In the U.K., the Guardian heralded the move: "After the Crash, Iceland's Women Lead the Rescue." The Financial Times declared, "Iceland calls in women bankers to clean up young men's mess." In New Zealand, NZ Herald crowed, "Viking women fight to save nation in meltdown," while perhaps most pointedly, PBS announced, "Viking Women Aim to End Iceland's Age of Testosterone."

Indeed, Jóhanna's new government called for bringing in a bucket full of estrogen to the male-dominated worlds of business and finance. She wasted no time in drumming men out of some of the most senior positions of power, instituting a quota requiring 40 percent of corporate board seats to be held by women. She created a new arm of the finance department, devoted to "gender budgeting," which is just what it sounds like: an office devoted to making sure the government doesn't spend more money on men than on women.

"Iceland was the first in the world into the crisis, but we could be the first out, and women have a big role to play in that," said Halla Tómasdóttir, one of the founders of the female-led bank. "It goes back to our Viking women. While the men were out there raping and pillaging, the women were running the show at home."

The women in charge of the country convened a group of experts to get to the bottom of the financial crisis—Icelanders called it the "truth commission."

And then, in an astonishing move, they brought in a couple of female gender-studies professors from the local university to assess what role gender played in the crash.

In what may well have been a first in any country's history, Iceland's government actually studied whether macho posturing led to its economic meltdown. Its conclusion can be summed up in one word: yes.

What's most remarkable about this wholesale transformation is that it only gained traction after that initial flush of power. Almost nothing was untouched by the new "feminization." What started out as a crackdown on reckless bankers spread into every corner of the culture.

In 2010, Iceland banned strip clubs. It announced a plan to crack down on hard-core Internet pornography. A woman was named for the first time as the head of the Church of Iceland.

And in 2010—five years ahead of the United States—Iceland, which had already permitted civil unions, formally legalized gay marriage. The prime minister was among the first to wed.

When I arrived in Iceland, I suspected that Iceland's situation was a fluke. I was certain it was a case in which a country gripped by mass financial madness before 2008 had traded it in for a mass-hysterical compulsion to purge itself of everything manly.

But as my visit wore on, I realized that this was no passing fad. Perhaps what surprised me most is that the men I met were at least as supportive of the move toward "feminization" as the women.

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Certainly for Gunnar, a fisherman/theater director I met in Reykjavik, it was a welcome development. "Icelandic sagas are full of women," he tells me later that week, as we drive along Reykjavik's main thoroughfare. "Look at the stories about the famous Vikings, which were mainly killing each other when they were sleeping. But behind those guys in the sagas were strong women."

If anything, he wishes the women had gotten even further. "I think it's wrong," he scowls when I mention Iceland's number-one ranking in the World Economic Forum analysis. "We are a long way from equality."

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Gender InequalityBanking and Capital Markets
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