Why is Iceland the best place in the world to be a woman?

Noreena Hertz

Former Economics Editor

Rebekka is so tiny that even on her tiptoes, arms aloft, she cannot reach.

So her teacher lifts her up to the unvarnished wooden monkey bar. “One, two, three” her classmates count.

She hangs on, determinedly.

When the count of 10 is reached she jumps to the ground. “I am strong” she proudly shouts.

Girls are trained in physical strength here. Credit: ITV On Assignment

It’s an ordinary morning for this single-sex class of three year olds at Laufásborg nursery school in Reykjavik.

No playing with dolls or cup-cake decorating on the schedule here.

Instead, as Margret Pala Olafsdóttir the school’s founder told me: "We are training [our girls] to use their voice. We are training them in physical strength. We are training them in courage".

It’s a radical approach to education. And a popular one.

In this country of only 330,000 people there are 19 such primary and nursery schools.

Margret Pala Olafsdóttir is training girls to use their voice and have courage. Credit: ITV On Assignment

I had come to Iceland to investigate why this land of lavas and glaciers has been named the best place in the world for women.

For the past six years it has topped the WEF’s Gender Gap Index and has done so again this week.

The Economist recently named Iceland the world’s best place for working women – in comparison the UK came in at No. 24!

Margaret’s philosophy seemed to sit well with these accomplishments. But her network of schools has been going for less than 20 years.

So if tiny tots trained in feminism aren’t the reason for this gender success story, what is?

Boys are taught to be more caring. Credit: ITV On Assignment

History or in this case herstory provides us with clues.

For centuries this seafaring nation’s women stayed at home as their husbands traversed the oceans.

Absent their menfolk they played the roles of farmer, hunter, architect, builder. They managed household finances and were crucial to the country’s ability to prosper.

Yet their work inside the home was not properly valued and when they worked outside the home it was typically for lower pay than their male counterparts.

Pupils at Margret Pala Olafsdóttir's school are taught to be strong. Credit: ITV On Assignment

By 1975 Icelandic women were fed up.

It wasn’t just that they weren’t being valued for their labour, they also were sick of their lack of political representation: only nine women had ever won seats in parliament.

So against the backdrop of the global feminist movement, Iceland’s women decided to take things into their own hands.

Iceland’s women held a day of protest on October 24th 1975. Credit: ITV On Assignment

An outpouring of women onto the streets was by then a well-trodden form of activism.

In 1970 tens of thousands of women had protested on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

In the UK that same year 20,000 women marched in Leeds against discriminatory wages.

But what made Iceland’s day of protest on October 24th 1975 so effective was the number of women who participated relative to its overall population.

90% of women went on 24 hour strike in 1975. Credit: ITV On Assignment

I don’t just mean the 25,000 women – which at the time was a fifth of Iceland’s female population – who gathered on the streets of Reykjavik.

I mean the 90% of their female population who that day went on all-out professional and domestic strike.

Teachers, nurses, office workers, housewives put down their pens and their ladles and didn’t go to work, provide childcare or even cook in their kitchens.

All to prove just how indispensable they were.

It is the 7th time Iceland has been voted the best place to be female. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Thordis Loa Thorhallsdottir, a successful businesswoman who I met up with in one of Iceland’s hipster bars, was in the Reykjavik streets that day:

"I was 10 at the time and I remember it very clearly, standing there with my mother fighting, "you go mum!". I can still feel the crowd and the power the empowerment that was there. The big message was if women don't work the whole community is paralyzed, the whole society."

Grassroots activism at such a scale unsurprisingly had a significant material impact.

Within five years the country had elected the world’s first democratically elected female president - Vigdis Finnbogadottir.

Now in her 80’s, this steely-eyed powerhouse told me of the impact that day had on her own career trajectory.

Norrena Hertz talks to Thordis Loa Thorhallsdottir about the 1975 protest. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Other landmarks soon followed.

An all-female political party was established – The Women’s Alliance. More women were elected to parliament – by 1999 over a third of MP’s were women. Women joined the workforce at an accelerating rate.

And then in 2000 legislation came into effect which every person I spoke to highlighted as key to their march to the top of the Gender Equality table.

Parental leave was shaken up so as to actively encourage men to take it up.

Vigdis Finnbogadottir was the world’s first democratically elected female president. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Today every parent receives three months’ paid leave which is non-transferable.

Parents then have an additional three months to share as they like.

Because the pay is significant – 80% of salary up to a ceiling of £2,300 a month.

And because it's on a use it or lose it basis, 90% of Icelandic fathers take up their paternal leave.

This piece of social engineering has had a profound impact on men as well as women.

Not only do women return to work after giving birth faster than before, they return to their pre-childbirth working hours faster too.

In 2000 Iceland changed parental leave law to make it more appealing to men. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Research shows that after taking the three months paternity leave, fathers continue to be significantly more involved in child care and do more housework.

Sharing the parental responsibilities and chores from the beginning makes a difference.

“It’s a good place to be a woman”, Thordis told me. And it is.

Almost 80% of Icelandic women participate in the labour force.

Thanks to mandatory quotas almost half of the board members of listed companies are now made up of women. 65% of Iceland’s university students are now female. 41% of MPs are female.

Only 22% of managers in Iceland's companies are female. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Yet, the women I met on my journey were also clear that the country still has a long way to go.

They still have less economic power than men – only 22% of managers are female.

Less voice – only 30% of experts on TV are women.

Less pay - women still earn around 14% less than men.

Iceland’s record on all of these fronts is better than most countries. In the UK women’s hourly pay is 18% less than men.

But even in this gender progressive country, there’s clearly still a way to go.

It was the gender pay gap that puzzled me the most.

How could it be that it was still so significant given the huge efforts the state had put into mitigating the mummy penalty?

Not only when it came to parental leave but also with heavily subsidised nursery schools and after school care?

Members of the Daughters of Reykjavik rap group talk to Noreena Hertz. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Explanations the men and women I spoke too varied from women going into less well paid professions, to the penalty paid for working part-time that we’ve found in the UK as well, to the time it takes for employers’ implicit gender biases to shift.

Steiney Skuladottir, one of 'Daughters of Reykjavik', a feminist rap collective who rap about gender issues, put the blame at least in part on women’s reluctance to ask for sufficient pay compensation.

Fellow rapper Bloer Johanusdottir concurred. "It’s like we can’t be cocky. We are supposed to be modest."

Back at the school Margret Pala Olafsdóttir had this to say: "If you are learning from a young age that you are not getting your rightful share, if you are taught and trained in waiting, what do you expect?"

Yet my sense is that Icelandic women will have to wait less time than we will here in Britain to gain full equality. Because unlike in the UK, where gender inequities remain a sideshow, in Iceland the battle for equality is very much centre-stage.

Will this generation of Icelandic girls enjoy 100 percent equality? Credit: ITV On Assignment

The Icelandic government have pledged to close the gender pay gap by 2022.

And the women of this country continue to be highly organised.

An astonishing one-third of Iceland’s women are members of a closed Facebook group – ironically named "Beauty Tips" – in which they actively discuss gender issues.

Herstory teaches us that progress doesn’t come about in a vacuum and that grassroots pressure, plus political buy-in, is a very powerful catalyst for change.

In Iceland it seems that they have both. In spades.