Women Go On Strike in Iceland, the World’s Most Gender Equal Society

(Bloomberg) -- The prime minister joined other women in Iceland on a strike to call attention to the remaining inequalities in their society even though the country ranks highest globally in terms of gender parity.

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The protest, in which women are encouraged to stop working for a full day, is intended to highlight challenges including a gender pay gap, the uneven burden of unpaid work within the home and violence that still afflicts women disproportionately.

The day has echoes back to 1975, when 90% of the island’s female workforce first walked out of their jobs and handed children to their fathers for an eye-opening demonstration of the importance of their work, both paid and unpaid.

Tuesday’s demonstrations drew a crowd of tens of thousands in central Reykjavik, according to the police, a large number in the country of fewer than 400,000 people. Even the country’s prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, took part. It was the seventh such gathering over the years, and the latest since 2018.

Iceland is the most gender equal country in the world based on economic opportunities, educational attainment, health care outcomes and political leadership, according to the World Economic Forum, a title it’s held onto for the past 14 years. It has closed 91.2% of its gender gap according to the forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, where 100% denotes full parity, and compares with about 75% for the US.

“That’s led many to feel that equality has been reached,” said Sonja Ýr Thorbergsdottir, who runs public sector federation of labor unions BSRB. “That’s very far from the truth. There is still a long way to go,” she said, with 40% of women subject to violence at some point in their lives and with women’s median incomes on average 21% lower than men’s.

“You call this equality?” asks the slogan of Tuesday’s demonstration, organized by 45 unions and organizations.

The main reason for the gender disparity in Iceland, according to Thorbergsdottir, is line of work, with female dominated sectors offering lower salaries. Another problem is that women bear more of the burden at home, including the mental load.

“It isn’t women’s choice to work fewer hours than men,” she said. “It’s because they do more unpaid work.”

For many Icelandic businesses, the day means a loss of earnings with female workers gone and most child care facilities shut. The country’s biggest workplace, the National University Hospital, with 80% female staff, has pushed back operations and is running on minimum staffing.

Not all women are unequivocally in favor of the protest. Sigridur Margret Oddsdottir, the first woman to run SA Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise, says she supports the cause but questioned stopping the Icelandic economy for an entire day. Instead, she encouraged making arrangements with managers to ensure the economy would not be brought to a halt.

“We know that if women walk out of all jobs without consulting their managers it will have a huge effect on Icelandic society,” she said.

--With assistance from Gina Turner.

(Updates with number of participants in fourth paragraph.)

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