Equal Opportunity for Everyone at Work – Success Stories: Iceland

Equal Opportunity for Everyone at Work – Success Stories: Iceland

Iceland is a volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean near the Norwegian Sea with an abundance of both geography and history. Yes, history, because it is associated with the legacy of the Vikings. They kept their old traditions, but recently they opened up heading into the 21st century. Iceland, a success story of gender equality, but more importantly, in terms of decent work. As we all know, the Vikings had a very patriarchal society, where women had almost no role. When the Viking raids reached the British Isles, they took women as slaves. According to a legend, these women were the ancestors of Icelandic women. Their respect for traditions can be observed even today: there are no family names in Iceland unless you are a foreigner (or an official misspelled your name). Your name is always patronymic, meaning you get your name after your father (or mother). For example, Jón Olafsson. It means Jón, Olaf’s son. His father’s name is Olaf. Another example, Helga Pálsdottir. It means Helga, Pál’s daughter. This is a part of Viking heritage, this is embodied in all the other Nordic nations (like Sweden, Denmark) too, however, they do have family names. They became more influenced by others, but Iceland was very isolated. They were part of the Kalmar Union (1415-1523; comprising the four Nordic countries as well as the Faroe Islands and Greenland). With the dissolution of the Union, Iceland became a Norwegian dependency. The latter one was under Danish reign, so this was a personal union with the two countries. This meant somewhat free internal affairs for each country, but a common foreign policy and army. During the Kalmar Union, the Black Death severely decimated the population, around 70% of the population was annihilated. The 16th century brought a change to Iceland, as well as to other Nordic countries. King Christian III of Denmark converted to Lutheranism and spread the new religion throughout the nation. In 1550, the last Roman Catholic bishop was beheaded along with his two sons, this meant Iceland also chose Lutheranism. The Danes imposed harsh trade restrictions to Iceland in the 17th century, meaning only Denmark could trade with them and the ports of Reykjavik (the capital) were only open to Danish ships. Then smallpox further decimated the population, killing almost a third of the Icelandic people. Between the second half of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century was the darkest period of Icelandic history. They even had famine at that time, almost half of their livestock died. After the Napoleonic wars, the first independence movements started to form, backed by the Danish-educated intellectuals. In 1904, the Ministry for Iceland was established in the Danish cabinet. In 1918, they received full autonomy within Denmark, only the king was common to both. They functioned as a realm of the Danish territories. After the Nazis occupied Denmark, the Brits (and later, the United States) occupied Iceland to defend them against the Nazis. In 1946, they received full independence and abolished the kingdom, ratifying the Republican constitution. They never joined the EU, they are members of the EFTA, the European Free Trade Agreement. In 1994, they joined the European Economic Area, after which their economy was diversified and their GDP increased 32% by 2007. Unfortunately, they did not regulate banks well enough, and the global crisis caused the emigration of 5,000 people in 2009. They were close to bankruptcy in 2010. Then a woman, Johanna Sigurdardottir, rose to power. She managed to stabilize the economy, and it grew by 1.6% in 2012. Nowadays, their prime minister is another woman, namely Katrin Jakobsdottir (since 2017). She is a teacher of literature by profession. What does this signify? Iceland is not only a success story in gender equality but also quality education and decent work. A woman never abandons her country, either. Therefore, she is an idol to everyone in Iceland.

But why is this country a success story in decent work? Just after the crisis of 2008, the government introduced new laws, which affected workplaces a lot. The first one declared that gender discrimination was illegal. This affected the labour market as well. More recently, in 2018, the government took another action. They decided to accept the principle of “equal work, equal pay”. This means a woman must earn as much as a man earns for the same amount of work. Non-compliance means your company will pay a hefty fine. Gender discrimination became illegal in Iceland. The law will come into force in 2020. According to one of their ministers: “We want to break down the last of the gender barriers in the workplace. (…) History has shown that if you want to progress, you have to enforce it”. Furthermore, the same law requires that company boards must be at least 40% comprised of women. This is another step towards 21st-century-compliant companies. After the financial collapse of 2010, the government said: “women are the keys”. More and more women attained high-authority positions, which was also an important weapon against corruption. The law also states that every company with more than 25 employees must have a gender-equality program. What does that mean? Men should be more mature to comply with measures this century. There is a country, with around 320,000 inhabitants, with an abundance of geography, that could reach total gender equality and make it compulsory in schools. So, men should never oppress women because it will backfire. What country is successful at this in the 21st century? Which ones preserve traditions, but ask new questions, and bravely build a new world? Therefore, Iceland should be an icon for everyone around the world. Because they have done it. What are we still waiting for?

Calls to Action:

  1. Read more about Iceland
  2. Read the following article on their pioneering steps towards gender equality: Seven Feminist Laws Iceland Has That the World Needs

– Gergely Lázár

The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of #WAYSWF.

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