Women in Iceland Still Bear the Brunt of Domestic Labour

Women in Iceland are more likely than men to reduce their paid work hours in order to do unpaid work within the household. Women are also more likely to extend their parental leave than men and bear more responsibility when it comes to communicating with their children’s schools. Eight per cent of men never worry about household chores or childcare.

These findings are from a recent study conducted by Varða, a labour market research institute in Iceland. The study examines how couples balance work and family life and is based on a survey of parents with children 1-12 years old. Heimildin reported first.

Women more likely to work part-time

The study shows that women are more likely to work part-time than men: 68% of mothers were working full-time compared to 96% of fathers. The main reason mothers were working part-time was to make it easier to balance work and family duties. Women bore more responsibility for childcare after parental leave, did more of the communication with schools and after-school centres than men, and were more likely to worry about household tasks and childcare while at work than men. Women had also chosen their careers in order to facilitate balancing family and professional life to a greater extent than men.

Despite having one of the highest women’s employment rates in the world and scoring highly on many measures of gender equality, women in Iceland are more likely to reduce their paid working hours than men in Iceland. Women also bear the brunt of household chores and child-rearing and household management, or the so-called second and third shift.

Balance between work and family affects health

The survey asked parents how often they worry about household tasks and childcare when they are at work. A much higher percentage of women than men reported having such worries on a daily basis (43%) compared to men (27.7%). A higher percentage of men reported never having such worries (8%) compared to women (4.8%).

Varða’s report points to research showing that a balance between family and professional life, or a lack thereof, can have a decisive impact on health, both mental and physical. Studies have also shown that a good work-family balance increases people’s job satisfaction and work capacity.

Read more about the women’s rights movement in Iceland and Iceland’s recent shortening of the work week.

In Focus: The 2023 Women’s Strike

women's strike 2023

On October 24, 2023, thousands of people swarmed Arnarhóll hill in downtown Reykjavík, holding protesting signs, babies, and each other’s hands, turning the city centre into a historic spectacle. Iceland’s seventh Women’s Strike (Kvennaverkfall) had a much larger turnout than expected, with the crowd spilling out across Hverfisgata and Lækjargata streets. An estimated 70,000 to […]

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Healthcare and Education Services Especially Impacted by Women’s Strike

women's day off iceland 2018

The Women’s Strike scheduled for tomorrow, October 24, is expected to have a significant impact on services offered throughout Iceland.

Women and non-binary persons all over the country will put down their paid and unpaid work for an entire day and thousands are expected to participate in the strike to show solidarity.

Companies and institutions have made plans to deal with the temporary labour shortage, but some services may be disrupted.

Healthcare and education affected

Fields in which women form the majority are expected to be especially affected, such as healthcare and education.

RÚV reports that 5,493 of the total 6,856 employees at Landspítali, the National University Hospital, are women. This represents 80% of the entire workforce.

Runólfur Pálsson, director of Landspítali, stated to RÚV that operations tomorrow will be scheduled in such a way as to allow as many as possible to participate in the strike.

“Of course, we will continue to provide all emergency services, urgent tasks, and necessary surgeries,” he stated. However, he stressed that the nature of healthcare work means that not all can be absent from work. He instead encouraged those who do not or cannot participate in the strike to take pictures of themselves at work so that others can express solidarity with them.

Schools throughout Iceland are also expected to be affected by the strike. According to the Icelandic Teachers’ Union, women make up 94% of preschool teachers, 82% of primary school teachers, and 62% of secondary school teachers.

Katrín goes on strike

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir has also expressed her solidarity with the Women’s Strike, stating that she will be laying down her duties tomorrow, October 24.

She stated to Vísir: “I will be putting down my work to show solidarity with women. It is an incredible situation in the year 2023 that we still have gender pay gaps, that we haven’t achieved full equality, and that we are still dealing with gender-based violence.”

Stating that these issues have long been a priority for her government, she continued: “We are seeing the gender pay gap decrease, and we have also taken significant actions to address gender-based violence.”

Katrín also called for others to take part in the strike as well.

Publish a list

Organizers of the Women’s Strike will also be publishing a list of employers who obstruct women’s participation in the strike tomorrow.

Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir, chairperson of BSRB, a federation of public labour unions, is one of the organizers of the Women’s Strike. She stated that they hope to ensure that as many people are able to participate as possible. To that end, they have created a document that allows workers to report workplaces discouraging participation in the strike.

Sonja stated to Vísir: “We hope to establish initial contact with these employers and encourage them to support women and women’s participation in this important fight for gender equality.” She continued:  “Many of the submissions also come with accounts of injustices within workplaces, so we thought that we might even take it a step further and publish the names of those employers who do not intend to support this struggle for equality.”

Workplaces and institutions can be reported anonymously here.

Women in Iceland first went on strike in 1975. Some 90% of Icelandic women took place in what was called Women’s Day Off and equal pay legislation was passed in parliament the following year. Other labour actions have occurred in 1985, 2005, 2010, 2016, and 2018. Tomorrow will be the seventh Women’s Strike.

Read our archival coverage of the 1985 Women’s Day Off.

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From the Archive: Women Look to the Future

women's day off iceland

On October 24, 1975, women across Iceland went on strike to demonstrate the importance of their labour, both professional and domestic. Known as kvennafrídagurinn, or Women’s Day Off, some 90% of Icelandic women participated in the labour action. Shortly after, in 1976, Iceland passed its first legislation on gender pay equality, and though little was fixed overnight, it was a step in the right direction. Since the initial 1975 strike, Women’s Day Off has been held several times, with women symbolically leaving work early to demonstrate the still-extant pay gap. As of 2022, the unadjusted gender pay gap in Iceland was 9.1%.

Given the importance of this day, the editorial staff of Iceland Review was surprised to find no coverage of the original 1975 strike in our archives. It was only in 1985, after another 10-year anniversary strike, that the magazine’s editorial team covered the burgeoning women’s rights movement.

If progressive legislation on gender pay equality is still relatively young in Iceland (trailing the US Equal Pay Act of 1963 by more than a decade, for instance), many mindsets and attitudes have likewise only changed in the surprisingly recent past. Norms can change quickly, and although Iceland is often hailed as a beacon of social progress, this history is in many ways still a young one. And while our coverage (or lack thereof) of Women’s Day Off shows that change does sometimes happen overnight, social progress is not something that plays out automatically in history. History is moved when people come together and act, like so many Icelandic women did in 1975.

NB: This archival content first appeared in Iceland Review in 1986. As such, it may not reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

The meeting was the most unforgettable I have ever taken part in. It convinced me that though a huge meeting of men of the same mind might influence the authorities when women achieve such conviction, the foundations of society creak,” commented Adalheidur Bjarnfredsdottir, union leader and one of three speakers on Iceland’s famous Women’s Day in 1975. On 24th October, Icelandic women staged a one-day stoppage both at home and in the workplace, marking the beginning of the United Nations Decade for Women. Women drew attention to the importance of their work with the largest open-air meeting ever held in Iceland, attended by 25,000 people at Laekjartorg in central Reykjavik.

The clearest single indication of the achievements of the Decade for Women, which has just come to an end, is the election of a woman, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, to the presidency in 1980. Not simply a symbol of national unity and a splendid representative of her country on her travels abroad. President Vigdis presents living proof that women’s campaign for equal rights involves deeds as well as words. Many of her backers during the run-up to the election were men, and she was elected by voters of both sexes – proof that great strides have been taken towards real equality. The individual is no longer judged by sex but for his or her own character.

Marking the end of the Decade for Women, new surveys on the status of women in Iceland have confirmed various established facts, while also revealing that men and women in Iceland have enjoyed equal educational rights since the passing of legislation in 1911. But in spite of eight decades of nominal equality, the roles of men and women still differ greatly, both in education and at work.

Over 90% of student teachers and nurses are women, while only a handful of female students can be found at the Technical College, agricultural colleges, and the Marine College. The last decade has, however, seen women make a strong bid for education, and since 1980 over 40% of graduates from the University of Iceland have been women, as against only 20% in 1975-6. The majority are still graduating with a BA degree in the humanities or with a BSc in nursing, while men dominate the Faculty of Engineering and Science.

women's day off iceland

According to statistics from 1983, women made up 43.5% of the workforce, while their wages were only 29.3% of total income. Married women, 24.8% of the workforce, earned only 16.7% of the total. Although women in unskilled occupations now suffer little pay discrimination, among the university-educated, the gap between men’s and women’s salaries has, if anything, widened, but this factor reflects women’s choice of subject at university level. Women earn only 65% of the national average wage per man-year, which has hardly changed since 1980; this indicates that women predominate in the lowest-paid categories.

In “Women, What Next?,” a book which reviews women’s achievements over the past decade, Marge Thome puts forward the interesting theory that low pay is one of the factors which influences Icelandic women to bear more children (2-3) than the average western European. The wife’s wages make such a relatively insignificant contribution to the household that she feels able to stay at home with her children for several years. In many cases, she has no choice, as only 8.9% of children aged 2 to 5 are provided with full-time day nursery care, and the majority of places are allotted to priority groups such as single parents and students. About 35% of children aged 2 to 5 can attend playschool for half the working day. Childminders are in great demand, as about 80% of Icelandic women go out to work either full- or part-time.

Although President Vigdi’s Finnbogadottir has set a spectacular precedent, Icelandic women in general have a difficult time reaching positions of leadership. In the Althing (parliament), women only hold nine of the sixty seats, and in the seventy years since female suffrage became a reality, only 17 women have been elected to Althing. Two women have held ministerial portfolios, and five have been ministerial under-secretaries.

Women have done better in local politics, and in three districts women hold 40% of council seats; but on the other hand, 50% of local councils include no woman at all, mostly in rural areas. In the past decade, the number of women in managerial positions in the civil service has risen by 7%, and women have become increasingly active in the trade union movement.

Compared with women in general around the world, Icelandic women have a good many advantages. They live to an average age of 80 years – and generally the Icelanders and Japanese lead the world in longevity. This indicates the high standard of health care, which is almost unparalleled, especially with regard to maternity and child health. In the 1960s, preventive health care for women was spotlighted by a mass campaign against cervical cancer, the second most common form of the disease in Icelandic women. The campaign has produced tangible results in the form of a dramatic drop in the incidence of cervical cancer and greatly improved chances of cure. A similar mass screening service is now being introduced for breast cancer.

It was never claimed that women would achieve full equality by the end of the Decade for Women, but surveys show women gaining ground in every field, especially in the arts. The number of women in the Writers’ Association, for instance, has doubled in the past ten years, and women are clearly not resting on their laurels, even though their decade may be over.

Conditions in the Cleaning Sector Unacceptable, Survey Finds

cleaning equipment

Living conditions for those in the cleaning sector are unacceptable, according to a new report from Varða, the Labour Research Institute. Women and immigrants dominate the sector, facing significantly worse health and financial conditions than other workers, RÚV reports.

Far worse conditions than other jobs

On Wednesday, Varða released a report on the status and living conditions of those working in the cleaning sector. The study covered members of ASÍ and BSRB unions, with unequivocal results.

In an interview with RÚV, Kristín Heba Gísladóttir, Varða’s director, stated that the situation of workers employed in the cleaning sector is worse, even much worse, than those in other ASÍ and BSRB jobs, based on all metrics used in the survey, whether financial status, mental health, or physical and job-related strain.

Kristín observed that this group often faces rights violations in the labour market, adding that international studies had shown that the outsourcing of jobs negatively impacts the workers themselves; although many respondents work for private companies, the jobs often take place in public institutions, yet the workers are not considered part of these workplaces.

Women and immigrants dominate cleaning jobs

Kristín Heba also noted the high proportion of foreigners in this sector. “Cleaning is predominantly done by immigrants, with 78% being immigrants and 22% native-born.” Kirstín added that women composed a much higher percentage of workers in the cleaning sector: “Only about a quarter are men, meaning women and immigrants primarily sustain cleaning in our country.”

Varða presented the research results to the leadership of ASÍ and BSRB on Wednesday morning under the title “Take action.” Kristín Heba told RÚV that the title referred to those working in cleaning. “But it’s also a call from the labour movement to employers and authorities to take action and rectify this situation because the living conditions of those in cleaning are unacceptable.”

Keeping the Balance

maría guðmundsdóttir

Next year, Parity (est. 2017) is scheduled to release the adventure game Island of Winds. Loosely based on the so-called “witch-craze” in 17th-century Iceland, the game draws upon elements of nature, folklore, and history – with a focus on puzzles and empathy encounters. The game features nine unique areas inspired by Iceland, including glaciers, highlands, […]

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From the Archive: President Vigdís

vigdís finnbogadóttir president of iceland

From the archive: This article was published in Iceland Review magazine in 1982. Archival content may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir got to know her countrymen intimately during the presidential campaign in early 1980 — the first such campaign in Iceland where the candidates actively electioneered. It pleased her immensely to find out how much people in general knew about their country and its history. She came to the conclusion that common people in Iceland talk together much more than is usual in other countries — rather a novel discovery. She maintains that her experience in the theatre has been very useful in her present job. She is a firm believer in the future of small nations, provided they learn to stick together and utilize their potentials in a rational manner.

I was expected to do one better than the men.

Informality is a hallmark of Icelandic society, so there were no uniformed guards standing inside or out, as I walked into the office of the President, located in an old one-story building facing the central square of Reykjavik. The building, one of the very oldest in town, dating from the mid-eighteenth century, was at one time a Danish prison. President Vigdi’s is a tall, handsome, vital and quick-witted woman in her early fifties. Prior to her elections, she was for eight years manager of the Reykjavik Theatre Company. She is single and has one adopted child, and claims it would be difficult for a man of her generation to be the President’s husband. The pace she set during the campaign, when she travelled throughout the country speaking and meeting people, has continued. She has also made official visits to three of the Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway and Sweden, as well as to Great Britain.

Warm and friendly

“Surely you did not envision some two years ago that you would be sitting here today,” I said to President Vigdís after we sat down in her modest office. What made you run for president?

“As soon as it became known that President Kristjan Eldjarn would decline renomination, some of my friends and a number of strangers started coaxing me, pressing me to step forward. Out of the blue, they started enumerating various qualities which would stand me in good stead in this high office. I was supposed to know my country and its people well through my previous occupations. They said I was eloquent in Icelandic as well as in some foreign languages. When the campaign got underway, I was said to be quick to get out of a tight spot and to make a good impression, to be warm and friendly. Not so few also maintained that I never made distinctions among people. This was not only said by my friends, but also by people who did not know me personally. Now as then, I am always equally surprised when people tell me how they see me.”

vigdís finnbogadóttir president of iceland
President Vigdís with Crown Prince Harald and King Olav V of Norway.

I am always equally surprised when people tell me how they see me.

“I think that my teaching in secondary-school and on television has a lot to do with it. I am essentially modest and never believe I can do things as well as they ought to be done, but my upbringing made me ambitious to do my very best in any job. Actually, the idea that I should run for President first came to my attention more than three years ago. I had given a speech to a gathering of intellectuals, and later I was told that, after I left, the idea that I would make a good candidate was aired. At the time I thought the idea was preposterous.”

But you changed your mind?

“Well, when the first candidate came forward, the idea was revived. After Dr. Eldjarn had officially announced his intention of retiring from public life, there was not a moment’s respite. At first I did not really take it seriously, pushed the idea aside, wanted the closing date for announcing candidacies to pass. The other candidates stepped forward, but I hedged despite telegrams and delegations. I even stayed away from the Theatre. Then one night at the home of my friend and colleague, Tomas Zoega, who was the business manager of the Theatre, I decided to run. Several of my friends were present, and their main argument was that it was fitting, in view of the great success of Women’s Day in Reykjavik in 1975, that a woman should stand for election to the highest office of the land. As soon as I had made up my mind, my friends said, We all stand behind you! It never entered my mind that I would get elected, but I also felt sure that my candidacy would not be a total fiasco. I merely wanted to prove that a woman could take part in a presidential campaign on an equal footing with men.”

Obviously a gain for the liberation movement

Did you look upon your candidacy as somehow part of the women’s liberation movement? Or were other considerations more important?

“Not as part of the women’s liberation movement, no. But to me it seemed natural that some woman should run—that she should seek the office as an equal. At the time I happened to be at a crossroads in my life. I had just resigned from my job at the Theatre. I had no ties. I knew I would be exposed to a good deal of criticism during the campaign. But my mother and other close relatives were so old that they would not be told what might be said about me, and my little girl was too young to understand. This appraisal proved correct. I am quite convinced that I would not have run, had I been married.

I now appear so often at meetings all over the country that I could not expect a husband my age to be ready to follow me wherever I go on official business—and people would find it strange for me to be travelling alone most of the time. We live in an era when women still more or less live their lives through their husbands, not the other way around. Women my age very often see their surroundings through the eyes of their husbands, which of course can be excellent binoculars to look through at the world.”

Do you nevertheless look upon your election as a gain for the women’s liberation movement?

“The election was obviously a gain for the liberation movement. But I was not elected as a result of that struggle. If women had joined forces I should have won at least 50 percent of the votes. A very considerable proportion of my votes came from men, particularly old and young ones. The older generation really wanted to elect a woman. It is in truth hard to believe how many of the older generation supported me—especially elderly men. I suppose they were thinking of the future—the future of their daughters. I think men become women’s liberation champions for their daughters, not for their mothers or wives.”

Did you feel that you benefited or suffered for being a woman during the campaign?

The King of Sweden and President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir

“Mostly I was treated with respect, even though political fanaticism sometimes raised its ugly head. I have never belonged to a political party, but I have had and still have strong opinions, especially regarding the struggle for the national and cultural independence of our people. This seems to have confused some people. I was supposed to be a communist sympathizer and to be opposed to church and religion. A strange conclusion indeed! This loose use of political labels is not only irritating but downright dangerous. I suppose we are all idealists and sympathize with the ideal of equality. Does that make one a communist? For one thing, how can an Icelandic nationalist possibly accept the subjugation of other nations or condone what has happened and is happening in various parts of the world? I stand for equality, cultural growth, national independence, world peace, and the hope that humanity may avoid a third and final holocaust.”

What was most surprising to you during the presidential campaign?

“My greatest pleasure was meeting this nation of ours. I had never imagined what fun it would be to travel around the country, visit farms and factories, talk to people from all walks of life and discover that they were articulate in a way that is becoming rarer in the big urban centres — to meet people who know their country and its history inside out. It was a revelation. I had mostly seen the country Irom a car window, driving along the highways, but not come into direct contact with the people themselves. It was a great experience, particularly in the sparsely populated areas. I had never expected the impressive qualities of those people. They were so wide awake and well informed. I think the common people in this country talk together much more than is usual in other countries I know.”

Wider powers not the goal

Then, on 1 August 1980, you took office. Was it hard to assume the new role? Were you nervous? Were you apprehensive about replacing your predecessor? Have your experiences in teaching and the theatre been of use to you?

“That’s a big bunch of questions. No, I was not nervous. I don’t think I am the nervous type. I had no idea of what I was in for. Nobody knows beforehand what he or she is in for. My predecessor guided and helped me in every way possible. We were in the peculiar situation of having no trade union to help us. My predecessor performed his duties with such excellence—for years, I had admired his performance—that I felt apprehensive about not being able to do equally well. I have tried my best. But obviously, each of us does the job in accordance with his or her character. It is impossible to imitate others. Each of us creates a different image of the office. But at the same time, we try to preserve established traditions. I don’t want this office to gain wider powers; it should not aim at monarchy. My experience in the theatre has been valuable. Whoever deals with drama gets to know human nature in the most diverse circumstances. I entered this office with the experience that nothing in human nature or conduct is entirely unexpected. Of course, you never know how much you actually do know, but I have learned so much about human beings in the theatre so I don’t judge harshly. I have learned to be tolerant of everything except prejudice.”

president of iceland vigdís

Do you find it hard to be your own real self when you appear in public? Can you say what is on your mind and do what you like in a world where for instance flirting lends a certain colour to life?

“It is hard to change a 51-year-old person even if every opinion should be changed whenever valid reasons suggest that. I don’t find it difficult to appear in public. I always enjoy being with other people and think I am my old self all the time. I hope I’ll never lose the joy of life nor the human touch. Whether you flirt with a child or a man, mutual understanding is always a pleasure, and the moment’s delight from one day to another is what actually counts.”

During your official visit to Denmark last year, the Danes found you more open and outspoken than is common for heads of state. Do you think they were right? If so, do you consider this an asset?

The President should be as close to the people as possible.

“There is no doubt that as a popularly elected, non-political head of state I can allow myself to say more than royalty can. It is obvious that those brought up in a certain manner to fulfill prescribed duties have a different attitude. I never make a political statement and take no stand on political questions – unless we agree that the whole of life is in a certain sense politics. I am very discreet and try not to change that strand in my nature. I would never dream of revealing secrets, and find myself to be one of the most reticent Icelanders now alive — like a doctor who has taken his Hippocratic oath. That’s why I could follow my intuition and say what I wanted to have in the headlines of next day’s papers in Denmark.”

Nationality and culture

How do you look at the role of the President beyond the traditional one?

“The traditional role is trying to be alert to everything concerning Icelandic nationality and culture. The President should engender, among the people at large, a feeling of genuine mutual friendship. I try to talk personally to everybody when I meet groups. The President should be as close to the people as possible, for the office is first and foremost a symbol of national unity.”

What is it in Icelandic culture that, in your opinion, should be especially cultivated and stressed?

Vigdís Alongside Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

“The preservation of our language and a steady stimulation of all creative efforts. In many ways we are unique in our creativity. If we look after our culture as well as our children, we consciously strive for what all humanity yearns for: peace. Nobody can believe in the future without working for peace. Wishful thinking is not enough. We have to follow closely what is happening in the world and state categorically: This we want but that we do not want. We have to demand that all the money now squandered on armaments and international power politics should be channelled to make use of the marvellous scientific discoveries of modern times in the service of the hungry and the needy. We have found the means to halt the population explosion. I refuse to believe that we cannot find the means to halt the greed for power. I am an idealist on behalf of children. Those jockeying for power around the world have only ten or twenty years to go. They must not leave the coming generations with a world threatened by annihilation.”

The small nations of the world have a future.

“Youth should protest instead of losing hope and taking refuge in drugs to dull the senses. Only a lack of will to live can make a person try to dull the senses in order to survive.” Do you think the small nations of the world have a future, considering the so-called brain drain, which deprives them of their ablest minds and best-educated citizens?

“I feel convinced that the small nations of the world have a future once they realize that by sticking together they are a major power. It may not be possible to stop brain drain entirely, but it can be diminished if the small nations co-operate and exchange talents for certain tasks, just as farmers share tractors. Nordic co-operation is a case in point. The Nordic countries are a cultural superpower, no doubt about it. They have produced a culture which reaches the masses, and publish newspapers and weeklies which enhance sensibilities and rational thinking.”

You have been asked to open the Scandinavia Today exposition in Washington D.C. next September on behalf of the Nordic heads of state?

“Yes, I am proud to have been asked to do that and am very much looking forward to the occasion. This is a dream I have long known would come true. I am proud of being a spokeswoman for all the Nordic countries on that occasion, and it is a great compliment to us that they have this confidence in me, underlining the fact that Icelanders were the first Europeans to write in the vernacular, nearly 900 years ago.”

Propose Abolishing Iceland’s Housewife Holiday Funds

Three Independence Party MPs have put forth a bill to abolish women’s right to so-called “housewife holiday funds” in Iceland, Fréttablaðið reports. According to Vilhjálmur Arnason, the bill’s proposer, the funds breach equal rights law. One fund committee member argues there are still many women who depend on the funds to be able to take time off.

Regulation established to ensure housewives could take holidays

Iceland established regulations on housewife holiday funds over 60 years ago with the goal of ensuring that women who worked in the home had the ability to take holidays. As per the regulations, Iceland’s municipalities are required to pay into holiday funds that are then used to subsidise trips for housewives, which are organised by holiday committees.

Some municipalities have protested these regulations in recent years, with the municipality of Garðabær entering into a legal dispute with its holiday fund committee. In 2012, a man who wanted to join a housewife holiday fund trip to Slovenia took the holiday committee before the Equality Complaints Committee but lost his case.

Gender pay gap led women to stay home

Hildur Helga Gísladóttir, who is on the holiday committee for the municipality of Hafnarfjörður says the proposal to abolish the housewife holiday funds is premature. “These women are still alive and are using these holidays,” she stated. “These are women who had to be home half of the day as a result of government decisionmaking.”

What Hildur is referring to is that during the 20th century, Iceland’s government did not build and staff schools fast enough to meet demand, and children were only in school for half days rather than full days. Because women often earned less than men, many ended up staying home or working only part-time outside the home in order to care for children. This means they did not have the same pension and holiday rights as people who were in full-time employment outside the home. Some schools in Iceland did not offer full-day programming for children until around the turn of the century. Hildur points out that the ongoing chronic shortage of preschool spots has a similar impact on women.

Hafnarfjörður receives around 100 applications for the trips that its holiday committee organises and the women who apply are mostly born between 1930 and 1960, according to Hildur. Many of them are widows or are caretakers of spouses who are ill. “The Housewife Holiday Fund gives them the opportunity to travel cheaply. The subsidies made a difference for these women. This is maybe the only vacation they get.”

Supports some residents but not all

Vilhjálmur Arnason, the MP who proposed the bill, called it “the next logical step in the development of [Icelandic] society.” According to Vilhjálmur, many of the women who are homemakers today have the right to a paid holiday through other means. He believes the issue centres on the self-determination of municipalities, who currently do not have a choice on whether they pay into such funds or not. “They have no choice in the matter, they subsidise a part of their residents, but not all of them.”

Making It Work

The uphill battle for equality in the workplace and technology’s latest solutions

It’s been 43 years since Lilly Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton solved the equality issue in the seminal film 9 to 5, but somehow, we constantly find ourselves running into the same old stumbling blocks, and even some new and unexpected ones. Venture capital investments are only a tiny fraction of the business world but they are indicative of a larger issue. No matter how you slice it, women still aren’t on equal footing with men in the workplace. Despite the situation, plenty of things have changed since 1980, including attitudes towards inequality as an issue. Women are a much larger part of the workforce and they’re putting in the effort to change the game.

Someone recently tweeted about a relatively young Icelandic tech company that’d just gotten a large investment. When someone jokingly replied asking where a woman could go to find such a large sum of money, the jesting tone was lost on the original tweeter who replied that investments like this are the result of years of hard work, something that many men and women can and do earn. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? 

Except that it’s mostly men. In 2022, a report found that women-led teams accounted for 1.1 % of companies that received funding from venture capital funds. And reader – if you, like me, hoped that that number is so low because most of the teams are mixed, I regret to inform you that mixed teams received just over 10% of the funds. 88.7% of VC funding goes to all-male teams of founders. 

PayAnalytics – Working with international companies to evaluate salaries and positions for people of all genders and origins.

PayAnalytics founder Margrét Bjarnadóttir has a background in operation research. Her Ph.D. focused on how we can use data and mathematical models to support decision-making. When a COO at an Icelandic bank complained about the lack of resources to close the pay gap where they worked, Margrét was the right person to hear them, at the right time. Two years earlier, the bank had realised the extent of their pay gap and vowed to make changes. Their goal was to incorporate gender equality into all hiring processes and promotions. When they assessed progress at the end of those two years, nothing had changed. For Margrét, this was the perfect research opportunity, and she created her prototype of a mathematical model that would not only analyse the extent of the pay gap, taking into account different positions and responsibilities but also provide the solution to closing the gap. When her calculations worked, providing the bank with the tools they needed to implement change, the foundation was laid for Pay Analytics. Today, the company has clients in more than 50 countries, the largest of which comprises hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide.

Since its beginnings in 2016 when the idea for PayAnalytics won the entrepreneurial competition Gulleggið, Margrét has found the conversation regarding the pay gap is changing rapidly. “When we were starting out, we needed to explain to investors that there were companies that needed this kind of service, but we donʼt anymore. There’s been an avalanche of rules and regulations all over the world requiring companies to measure pay gaps and release the results. They differ from country to country but in the EU, for instance, when you advertise a position you will soon be required to also advertise the pay range.”

When the percentage of VC funding allocated to women-led teams comes up, Margrét nods sympathetically. While acknowledging that every company’s trajectory is different, she recognises the stories of investors asking defensive questions and focusing on risks rather than potential successes when talking to women. “By now, I can send the guys out to investor meetings,” she states jokingly, referring to the CEO and the CFO. On a more serious note, she continues: “The pay gap and lack of investment in female-led companies come from the same root: implicit bias. We all have it and it taints our decision-making,” Margrét adds. Her approach is to fight bias with data. “Documentation also helps, such as writing down why people get raises. Research shows that having to provide neutral descriptions of why people get raises lessens the pay gap.”

Every successful idea raises the question: Why hasn’t someone done this before? When I pose the question to Margrét, she refers to the cultural environment. “It’s not a coincidence that we’re an Icelandic company. Iceland has always led the way in this regard. Gender equality is a topic that people of all genders in the country care about. The issue was on people’s radar much sooner than in other countries.”

For Margrét, we’re in a unique position to tackle inequality. “We’ve never talked this much about diversity, inclusion, and equity. And the regulations and legislation are being put into place to back it up.”

Empower Now – Digital consultation working to create inclusive workplace culture.

While Pay Analytics focus on financial equality, Empower Now offers a holistic DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) solution to develop people-friendly workplace cultures. This extends beyond finances to areas including employee experience, public perception, recruitment processes, parental leave, diversity, and team surveying. But the first step is to assess the current status. Sigyn Jónsdóttir is the CTO of Empower Now and in her opinion, there is still much work to be done. “The fact is that most workplaces can and should do better,” she tells me. Once Empower Now has analysed the situation and isolated the issues, they provide a solution to the challenges that come up, based on measuring, goal setting, and education. “We offer micro-learning modules on DEI topics that leave an impact. An easy example would be our short videos in mobile format that the employees can choose to watch anytime, so people gain perspective and education, which they can then apply in real life.”

Founders Dögg and Þórey have been working as DEI  consultants for years but in-person consultation is impossible to scale up to an international level. The scalability comes in taking the process digital. 

Sigyn explains further: “If a scandal occurs, many issues can arise, from losing valuable employees due to completely preventable bias, to affecting bottom lines, like the company’s stock tanking. Since #metoo, they’ve found that old-fashioned crisis management practices, like simply firing a CEO, don’t necessarily repair their brand image or employee trust. Nor correct behaviour and prevent it from happening again. Issues of discrimination or bias are never down to one person. Even if the issue stemmed from a single person, it is still down to culture. It becomes a scandal when it’s not immediately handled and corrected properly. If something like this has been happening at your company, people know that it’s an issue with the workplace culture. But companies are a little lost on how to correct issues when they arise and prevent them from happening in the first place. That’s where we come in.”

There aren’t many men working in the gender equality business and finding out that it was mostly women cleaning up misogyny’s messes was a glum start to my research. Sigyn, however, has a more uplifting take. “Often, we get our foot in the door because a person who has experienced inequality gets us involved, but it’s important to us that it doesn’t fall on victims of discrimination to get Empower Now integrated into their workplace. Senior leaders who want to create equitable companies need to take action. The pressure is usually on groups who are the most vulnerable to bias to fix matters, which creates an unnecessary additional burden. But they also are often the greatest drivers of change.” According to Sigyn, it makes sense for those who are susceptible to discrimination to have a voice in fixing it. “That shouldn’t change. But they can’t be tasked with the responsibility of fixing these problems. People in a position of power should focus on being allies to those with less power and support their work.” 

Sigyn’s optimism is only slightly dampened at the mention of the 1.1% figure. “A recent study from Harvard Business Review shows that when pitching to VCs, men tend to get progressive questions focusing on potential gains, while women get more defensive questions focusing on risk and potential losses,” she states. “A progressive question might be something like: How do you plan to monetise this? While a similar defensive question would be: How long will it take you to break even?” Interestingly, she adds that there doesn’t seem to be a difference if it’s a man or a woman posing the questions. A dearth of women presenting their ideas can also be explained by the state of the startup world: “The startup scene has been known for its ‘bro’ culture, and that’s not a culture that supports DEI in any way.”

Empower Now is the rare instance when a women-led team gets funding based on an idea, without presenting a ready-made prototype. “Usually, teams have to be much further along in product development to get an investment. I hope that with more funds being available at the very early stages of a company’s development, that things might be changing. Unfortunately, I think, given the news in the last weeks about investments in women-led teams globally being down in 2022, it may only be an aberration.” In Sigyn’s opinion, things are changing for the better, but she has to admit the statistics don’t support her optimism. Yet.

GemmaQ is working on a gender diversity index for investment professionals, based on the mounting evidence that gender equality is not only a question of equality but can also be an indicator of a lucrative business. 

Freyja Þórarinsdóttir is the founder of GemmaQ, an index which automatically rates publicly traded companies according to management diversity. The reason why investors should focus on companies dedicated to equality isn’t just moral or ethical. According to Freyja, investing in equality is good business: “There’s a correlation between diversity and an above average profitability. Although we don’t have evidence of causation, multiple studies have shown us that companies with greater representation of women in corporate leadership are more likely to outperform those with less diverse leadership.”

 “First and foremost, there’s a marketing aspect to being able to state publicly that your fund is only investing in companies who’ve got it together when it comes to equality and to be able to back it up with data,” Freyja states. Before launching GemmaQ, she was with the Merrill Lynch wealth management division of Bank of America in Seattle and a director and team leader at the Central Bank of Iceland. In addition to her degrees in law and political science, Freyja received a Master’s in Economic Policy Management from Columbia University. Her work in asset management showed her that besides wanting a return on their investment, clients wanted to know where their money went and if it was making a difference. While there was a distinct generational shift in clients’ sense of responsibility, it’s clear that pension funds, for example, are set on investing in a more responsible way, as are large national funds such as the Norwegian oil fund and Japanese pension funds. 

GemmaQ is a technical solution that gathers public information on companies’ management diversity and monitors changes that would jeopardise it. Officially started in 2019, the project has earlier roots as Freyja’s research project at Columbia University. With 15 years of diversity data at her disposal, Freyja explains that while things are looking up, attitude-wise, the numbers are still bleak.

 “Gender Lens, the GemmaQ Fortune 500 index, tracks the gender leadership balance among Fortune 500 companies. It shows that women represent only 10.2% of Fortune 500 companies CEOs, and just 6.6% of board chairs today. With five new women taking on CEO roles in January 2023, this is becoming a record year with women in leadership roles”. 

 

In the US, legislation differs significantly by state. Some states have required gender quotas on company boards, while some companies are required to list their gender ratios publicly. In some states, however, there are no regulations at all. “Even though there are differences between companies in the same sector depending on their location, we are seeing the same trend across states,” Freyja tells me. “Women are being promoted at far lower rates to leadership roles than men. The rate of change is unacceptably slow.” 

Heima – An app that organises housework and family life, splitting tasks equally between family members, ensuring an equal division of labour while removing the mental load of managing the home.

The business world doesn’t exist in a bubble. And in spite of the recent explosion of the fintech sector, it is still run by humans, not robots. It’s not enough to make sure the business world is paying people of all genders equally, providing a healthy environment, and diversifying their management teams if the pressure of housework and managing the home doubles their workload when compared with men. That’s how women get burnt out. According to Alma Dóra Ríkarðsdóttir and Sigurlaug Guðrún Jóhannsdóttir, their app will not only lessen the workload in the home but also make your relationship better. “We believe the key to happy family life is to work well together and communicate well. We went with a software solution, a management tool that enables people to cooperate harmoniously, much like work management tools operate in the workplace.” Data suggest that women do 75% of housework worldwide which negatively impacts their personal and professional development. Alma continues: “The idea was inspired by my work as a specialist in gender equality in the Prime Ministry. We were mapping the major equality issues in Iceland and the world, and the unequal division of housework is a foundational issue. If we’re going to have equal pay and equal opportunities, we need to start at home and make this right.” When introducing their idea, Alma and Sigurlaug had to start at the very beginning, by explaining the concept of the mental load of managing housework, sometimes referred to as the third shift: “The invisible managerial work in the home that’s less tangible than simply washing the dishes or cleaning floors. We’re bringing that unseen work to the surface.” In Iceland, VR, Iceland’s largest trade union, launched a national campaign to introduce the idea to people. “We do sometimes have to explain the concept of the mental load, especially when talking to people from outside of Iceland. It’s becoming better known worldwide, but in Iceland, everyone knows what it is, following VR’s campaign. Before, we would have to introduce the concept to people doing user reviews. Now, people bring it up in the first place,” Alma says.

While younger people are generally more excited about technological solutions, in the case of Heima, it makes perfect sense. “We’re focusing on younger people, who might have young children. People who’ve been living together for decades have their own routine that they’ve settled with their partner and it might not need disrupting. We’re doing this for the people in the process of creating their housework division and settling their routine. People who want more equality, less hassle, and more joy in the home.” According to Alma, tension over housework is the third most common cause of divorce worldwide, so there’s a lot to be gained.

On the issue of finding funding, the developers behind Heima have received initial funding. Now they are marketing their concept to investors and developing their business plan for their second round. Alma is hesitant to make generalisations about the startup environment. “What I can say is that I was working for the Ministry of Industry and Innovation, looking into funding for women, and what I found was that very often, when assessing the success of innovation projects, what’s looked at are the results, the successes, the companies that have made it through and been successful. And men are much more heavily represented. So if your idea of a perfect entrepreneur is Mark Zuckerberg, women will always be further from the goal than men.”

Startups are looking towards the future, trying to be the first to decipher what it may hold, being the first to introduce new solutions and technology into our lives. But somehow, when it comes to business, they keep betting on the exact same type over and over again. “They’re trying to make you fit into a male entrepreneur cookie cutter instead of acknowledging that women bring different things to the table. I think that plays a part. Also, many funds talk a lot about a funnel problem, that the percentage of women who receive funding represents the percentage of women that approach them, but it has been demonstrated that funds who make an effort to highlight women and make sure women know about them and that they have access to them have a higher proportion of women in their portfolio. So it’s not a funnel problem, it’s a question of accessibility.” While funds are in the end only responsible for maximising the return on their investment, Alma maintains that the singular approach to finding projects likely to succeed is limiting their scope. “We know that women tend to be more conservative in their estimations of success than men are. So instead of pushing them to create more unrealistic business plans, you could factor that into your calculations, while keeping in mind that men’s goals are likely to be unattainable.”

Finally, the women behind Heima arenʼt afraid to state that they’re not doing this just to serve their ideals. “We’re not afraid to say that this is a for-profit company. We intend to give our investors a return on their investment. We want to find a way to get our solution to as many people as possible.” That’s how they make their mark. “With money, you can scale up, you can enter more markets, introduce your solution to more people and have a bigger effect. We can give our app to the thousand people on our mailing list and that would have an effect but we could also try to get it to a million people in two years and that will have a bigger impact.”