My country has just taken a huge step forward in legally enforcing equal pay for men and women. Will the UK dare to follow suit ?, asks Icelandic author and political journalist Sif Sigmarsdttir
On 24 October 1975, the women of Iceland refused to show up for work. They refused to cook, clean or look after their children. Basically, they went on ten-strike. And that day, the shops in Iceland ran out of the only convenience food available at the time: sausages.
Call it symbolism, but by going on strike the women of Iceland were calling for men to respect their work and demanding equal pay.
This week Iceland became the first country in the world to make companies demonstrate they are not paying girls less than men for the same work. Employers are rushing to comply with the new regulations to avoid penalties. Companies and government agencies with more than 25 personnel must obtain government certification of their equal pay policies.
Iceland has long been deemed the best place in the world to be a woman. For the past nine years, the country has topped the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index; the UK comes in at 15 th.
In Iceland men get at least three months’ paternity leave, and 90% of them take it. This gives them time to become comfy with child-rearing, encouraging them to share the workload with their partners. Females in Iceland are highly educated, a high percentage hold managerial positions and they don’t give up their careers to have children: they do both- like the country’s new prime minister. At the end of 2017 Iceland got its second female prime minister, a 41 -year-old with three young sons.
Many in Iceland find the women’s strike of 1975 as a defining moment in the gender equality conflict. On the “women’s day off”, as it’s known, 90% of women stopped run and refused to do any household chores. Schools and nurseries were closed. Many stores, factories and theaters had to close their doors. Fathers were leave behind no choice but to bring their kids to work, stocking up on sweets and colouring pencils to keep them occupied. On the radio, children could be heard playing in the background while the newsreaders read the news. After work, the children needed to be fed and the whole thing objective up as the working day “the mens” of Iceland ran out of sausages.
I am the daughter of a woman called Vigdis Finnbogadottir. Not literally. She’s not my biological mother, and I’ve never even satisfied her. In the summer of 1980, Vigdis, a divorced single mother, became one of the first women in the world to be democratically elected as a head of state. I was not yet two years old when she became the president of Iceland and, at the same time, Europe’s first female chairwoman. It turned out to be an election result that shaped a generation of Icelandic women.
Vigdis( we go by our first name, even the president) was a popular chairman. She held the position for 16 years. Find a woman in a position of power had a profound effect on me and my female contemporaries when we were growing up. Amazingly, however, it wasn’t the uniqueness of a woman being president that shaped our worldview but the mundanity of it. We weren’t looking at her and thinking,” Yes! There’s our proof women can be leaders “: we were just looking at her thinking that she was the norm. To us, a woman being chairwoman was nothing out of the ordinary.
Vigdis , now in her late 80 s, places much important on the women’s strike in 1975 and insists that she would not have been elected president if it hadn’t been for that symbolic act.” What happened that day was the first step for women’s liberation in Iceland ,” she told the BBC in 2015.” It entirely paralysed the country and opened the eyes of many humen .”
But my generation’s future didn’t precisely turn out to be the promised land of equal opportunities that we thought awaited us. Not a single woman has served as president of Iceland since Vigdis. After a general election in 2017, percentages per of women in parliament dropped by virtually 10%, from 47. 6% to 38.1%. And lately we have not moved the needle significantly on the gender pay gap, which has remained obstinately at around 16% for years.
Yes, Iceland is the best place in the world to be a woman. But there is still room for improvement. When it comes to the fight for equality, symbolic acts such as the women’s day off can achieve great things, but sometimes more drastic measures are needed.
According to the WEF’s latest predictions, women will have to wait 217 years for the gender pay gap to close. The daughters of Vigdis, the girls who grew up in Iceland in the 80 s and 90 s, are now grown up and raising daughters of their own. They do not want to wait that long. And they surely do not want their daughters to have to fight the same fight their the women and grandmothers opposed before them. Maybe thanks to Iceland’s new statute, the vision of equal pay for men and women is to be able to be achieved.
In the UK, 2018 marks 100 years since( some) women were granted the right to vote. The festivities will be largely symbolic acts. An all-female cast is appearing on this year’s Celebrity Big Brother; the Royal Mint is making a new 50 p coin to mark the occasion.
But perhaps to celebrate the centenary of women get the vote, women in the UK should demand a altered in legislation to mirror Iceland.
* Sif Sigmarsdottir is a bestselling Icelandic author and political journalist. Her first fiction in English, I Am Traitor( Hachette Children’s Books ), is out now
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