Culture Minister Continues Legal Battle Over Hiring of Male Staffer Skip to content

Culture Minister Continues Legal Battle Over Hiring of Male Staffer

By Yelena

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir
Photo: Golli. Lilja Alfreðsdóttir.

Iceland’s Minister of Education and Culture Lilja Alfreðsdóttir will continue a legal battle to nullify a ruling that she broke gender equality laws in the hiring of a permanent secretary to her ministry in 2019. The ruling was issued by the Equality Complains Committee in May 2020. Lilja filed a case against the complainant in the Reykjavík District Court last year in an unsuccessful attempt to nullify the ruling. She will now take the case to the Court of Appeal.

In November 2019, the Ministry of Education and Culture announced that Páll Magnússon had been hired as the ministry’s permanent secretary. Páll was then a secretary for the Municipality of Kópavogur and a fellow party member of Lilja’s for the Progressive Party. The Ministry had selected Páll out of 13 applicants, four of which had been interviewed for the position.

Hired Based on Gender, Committee Ruled

Hafdís Helga Ólafsdóttir, secretary-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, was among the rejected applicants for the position. After requesting and receiving the relevant documents concerning the hiring process from the Ministry, she decided to refer the matter to the Equality Complains Committee, who ruled in her favour in May 2020. The Committee ruled that Hafdís Helga’s education and experience had been undervalued whereas Páll’s had been overvalued in the hiring process. The Committee’s evaluation was that it had not been possible to show that Páll was hired for reasons other than his gender and therefore Lilja had broken the Gender Equality Act by hiring him.

State Initiates Personal Court Case

The Equality Complaints Committee’s decisions are meant to be binding and thus cannot be appealed directly. In June 2020, however, Lilja announced she was starting a court case against Hafdís Helga in the name of the Icelandic state with the goal of nullifying the ruling. The decision was based on a legal assessment that Lilja has refused to make public. While Lilja is not the first minister whom the Committee has ruled to have broken the Gender Equality Act, she is the first to not accept such a ruling and sue an individual in the name of the state. Last Friday, the Reykjavík District Court ruled to uphold the Equality Complaints Committee’s ruling and ordered the state to pay Hafdís Helga’s legal fees of ISK 4.5 million ($35,000/€30,000).

Lilja stated that the decision to take the case to the Court of Appeal was “not easy,” but had been made based on legal advice. When asked by reporters whether her decision would prevent women from seeking redress in the future for discriminatory hiring decisions, she stated she does not believe so. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir has stated that the matter is entirely under Lilja’s jurisdiction.

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