Imagine if you worked a full day but stopped being paid at 2.55pm.

That’s the fate of women in Iceland, according to a protest group that organized rallies across the country this week, demanding equal pay and rights and declaring “Don’t Change Women, Change the World!”

While the protestors at ‘Kvennafrí 2018’, Women’s Strike, acknowledge that Iceland has made progress - it has the smallest overall gender gap of 144 countries ranked by the World Economic Forum and has enacted the world’s first equal pay law - they say they want faster and more meaningful progress.

Demonstrations were held in 16 towns and cities and the largest was in Reykjavík, where female musicians, poets, actresses and a 230-strong choir performed.

Women and girls protest for equal pay in Iceland
Image: Kvennafrí 2018/Rut Sigurðardóttir

“Pay discrimination is wage-theft,” Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, former Prime Minister of Iceland told the rally. “Let’s not stop until women’s contributions are evaluated fairly and the labour market is changed to suit women’s needs.”

Sigurðardóttir, who served as Prime Minister from 2009 to 2013, said that while Iceland is recognized as being one of the most gender equal countries in the world, that just illustrated how much more global improvement is needed.

Finding a voice

Social media is creating a wave of protest where women are speaking out, repeating #MeToo and telling the world that they have had enough.

That underscores the themes in the Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017, which estimated it will take another 100 years to achieve gender parity at the current rate of change and 217 years to close the economic gender gap. The 2018 report is due for publication in December.

Such themes have also been highlighted on social media via campaigns including #TimesUp and #MeToo and the Forum’s ongoing work shows how addressing these issues is more than an ethical or moral concern.

“Gender parity is also fundamental to whether and how economies and societies thrive,” the report said. “A variety of models and empirical studies have suggested that improving gender parity may result in significant economic dividends.”

How the gender pay gap looks around the world
Image: The Global Gender Gap Report 2017/World Economic Forum

Iceland has the smallest gender gap, according to the Forum’s report, which focuses on four areas: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. The nation has topped the rankings for the past nine years, reflecting a strong political and cultural will to change.

It ranks fifth out of 144 countries on a gauge of “wage equality for similar work”. Since the first edition of the Forum report in 2006, Iceland has closed around 10% of its total gender gap, making it one of the fastest-improving countries in the world. And its new law requires companies with 25 or more employees to obtain certification to confirm that equal pay is a reality for all employees, regardless of gender.

Image: The Global Gender Gap Report 2017/World Economic Forum

This year’s protest is not the first of its kind. In 1975, women left work to demonstrate the importance of their contribution to society, coining the term “kvennafrí”, or Women’s Strike.

They did the same in 1985 to protest about income inequality. Leaving work at the time of day when women essentially stop earning began in 2005, when thousands of women left work at 2.08pm. In 2010 women they left at 2.25pm and in 2016, they downed tools at 2.38pm.

Women protest for equal pay in Iceland
Image: Kvennafrí 2018/Rut Sigurðardóttir

Iceland’s unadjusted gender-pay gap was 16.1% in the year 2016, down from 17% the previous year, according to the country’s statistics agency. The protestors based their calculation on the “gender income gap”, which they said is higher than the official gender pay gap, adjusted for working hours.

“The average wages of women in Iceland are only 74% of the average wages of men,” they said. “Therefore, women have earned their wages after only 5 hours and 55 minutes, in an average workday of 8 hours. This means that, if the workday begins at 9am and finishes at 5pm, women stop being paid for their work at 2.55pm.”