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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Deep North Episode 49: Women Look to the Future

Arnarhóll hill women's strike 2023

It’s not an exaggeration to call the most recent Women’s Strike historic. With some 70-100,000 women participating, including Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the strike attracted international media attention and injected fresh energy into feminist activism in Iceland. We take a look at our 1986 coverage of Women’s Day Off and consider how far we’ve come, and where we have yet to go.

Tens of Thousands Participate in Women’s Strike

women's strike iceland 2023

The Women’s Strike taking place today across Iceland is seeing widespread participation. Exact numbers are not yet known, but forecasts indicate that tens of thousands of women and non-binary individuals are participating.

At the forefront of the strike is the gender pay gap, in addition to gender-based violence. The so-called “third shift,” in which women perform unpaid domestic labour such as childcare and household chores, has also been increasingly discussed by activists.

This marks the sixth women’s strike since Women’s Day Off in 1975, the first such labour action in Iceland.

Disruption to services

As reported yesterday, the strike has had an outsized impact on fields such as healthcare and education, where women form a majority of the workforce.

Vísir also reports that all pools in the Reykjavík area except one, Klébergslaug on the Kjalarnes peninsula, are closed today. Klébergslaug will, however, have shortened hours, open only between 4:00 and 10:00 pm.

Almost all bank branches will be closed. All branches of Landsbankinn and Arion bank will be closed, except for the location in Smáralind shopping centre.

Many municipal services will also be reduced today, either due to shortened hours or outright closures.

Air travel is not expected to be significantly affected today. Though a majority of employees in the sector are women, airline executives have stated that other employees are filling in for those participating in the strike.

Large protests in Reykjavík

One of the main events of the day is a protest organised on Arnarhóll hill, in downtown Reykjavík. Thousands were in attendance and a live stream can be viewed from RÚV here.

Highlights of the programme include talks by activists and live musical performances.

Women and non-binary persons outside Reykjavík are also taking part. RÚV reports that a group of women working in Akranes, for example, staged a “knit-in,” when their employer made clear that they wouldn’t be paid if they were to go on strike.

International media attention

The Women’s Strike has also drawn considerable attention from the international press, with outlets from the New York Times to the BBC and the Guardian covering the strike.

According to the World Economic Forum, Iceland has done the most to reduce the gender gap in the world. According to the WEF, the gap is 91.2% closed in Iceland.

 

 

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.

No Gender Pay Gap in Árborg

pay gap iceland

For the first time in the municipality’s history, Árborg in South Iceland has reported no wage gap for the municipality’s thousand-some employees.

Fjóla Kristinsdóttir, mayor of Árborg, stated to Vísir that she was “extremely proud of this achievement.” She noted that it was particularly impressive given the large size of the municipality and their many employees, though she also stated “this is naturally what we have to do according to the law.”

On how the municipality achieved this milestone in social justice, Fjóla stated that “I’m not trying to own this accomplishment. It’s just our great staff who have been working hard on this.”

There are around 1,000 employees in Árborg municipality, with women now considerably more represented than men. Now, however, the basic wage for all is the same, something that was not always the case.

The news is significant in its timing as well, coming near the anniversary of Women’s Day Off. On October 24, 1975, women in Iceland staged a historic strike, now known as Women’s Day Off. With nearly 90% of Iceland’s women participating in the strike, they walked out of both jobs and domestic labour for the day. The following year, legislation ensuring equal pay was passed.

 

46 Years Since First Women’s Day Off in Iceland

2018 Women's Day off Protest kvennafrídagurinn

Yesterday marked 46 years since Iceland’s first “Women’s Day Off,” when women left their workplaces and took to the streets to protest the gender pay gap. Around 25,000 women attended that first protest in Lækjartorg square, which sparked similar movements around the world. Women’s average salary in Iceland is still just 77.2% of men’s average salary, according to the newest figures from Statistics Iceland.

The first Women’s Day Off was held in 1975, and five more protests have been organised in Iceland since then: in 1985, 2005, 2010, 2016, and 2018. No public protest was held this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though the Women’s History Archives held a feminist history walk yesterday in downtown Reykjavík.

Despite legislation intended to ensure equal pay, Iceland’s gender pay gap persists. As of last year, women still filled less than 25% of CEO and chair positions in Icelandic businesses and the proportion of women on boards for companies with more than 50 employees was just under 35% in 2019.

Large Crowd Gathered at Women’s Day Off

A large crowd of women flocked to downtown Reykjavík for the Women’s Day Off protest. The women left work at 2.55pm today to protest gender income inequality. This year’s event bears the slogan “Don’t change women, change the world.”

This is the fifth time that women in Iceland have staged a mass walkout in protest of the gender pay gap since the first time the Kvennafrí, or “Women’s Day Off,” protest was held in 1975. The walkout takes place at the exact time at which women have earned their wages compared to their male counterparts. Women are paid 26% less than men, on average, and the walkout therefore takes place at 2.55pm. Previous walkouts took place in 1985, 2005, 2010, and 2016.

In 2005, this meant that women left their jobs at 2.08pm. Five years later, they left at 2.25pm. In 2016, they left at 2.38pm. According to the Kvennafrí website, the gender pay gap adjusted for working hours is at 16%, but the income gap is still quite high: on average, women in Iceland earn 74% of the wages of their male counterparts. “We have gained only 47 minutes in 13 years,” reads the website. “If progress continues at the same pace, we will need to wait another 29 years before women in Iceland have the same wages on average as men, in the year 2047!”

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir left work today at 2.55pm and encouraged her female staff at the Prime Minister’s Office to do the same, mbl.is reports.

Today’s festivities at Arnarhóll included speeches by former Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir, chairman of Efling union, lawyer Claudie Wilson, and Áslaug Thelma Einarsdóttir. Performing artists included women’s choirs Vox feminae and Katla, Léttsveit Reykjavíkur, and Múltíkúlti as well as rap group Reykjavíkurdætur. A mini play by Yrsa Þöll Gylfadóttir was also presented. Actresses Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir and Saga Garðarsdóttir hosted the event.

“Don’t Change Women, Change the World”

pay gap iceland

Women in Iceland are organising to walk out of their jobs at 2.55pm on Wednesday, October 24, Mbl.isreports. This is the fifth time that women in Iceland have staged a mass walkout in protest of the gender pay gap since the first time the Kvennafrí, or “Women’s Day Off,” protest was held in 1975. Previous walkouts took place in 1985, 2005, 2010, and 2016. “We urge women to walk out,” remarked event project manager Maríanna Clara Lúthersdóttir. “Not just for themselves, but for all other women in Iceland.”

In recent years, the walkouts have taken place at the exact time at which women have earned their wages when compared to their male counterparts. In 2005, this meant that women left their jobs at 2.08pm. Five years later, they left at 2.25pm. In 2016, they left at 2.38pm. According to the Kvennafrí website, the gender pay gap adjusted for working hours is at 16%, but the income gap is still quite high: on average, women in Iceland earn 74% of the wages of their male counterparts. “We have gained only 47 minutes in 13 years,” reads the website. “If progress continues at the same pace, we will need to wait another 29 years before women in Iceland have the same wages on average as men, in the year 2047!”

While the gender pay gap is still a primary contention for organisers, this year’s Women’s Day Off is expanding its points of focus to include workplace violence and harassment. “It’s all about workplaces and workplace issues,” said Maríanna Clara. “…We’re speaking out about human rights and [working] conditions in a broad sense.”

This year’s event is not only aiming to expand into rural areas across the country, but also to emphasise the importance of supporting immigrant women in Iceland who, per the website, “…in many cases lack the support networks native-born women have and are therefore especially vulnerable to violations of rights at the workplace and violence.” As part of this effort, website resources and materials were translated by volunteers into fourteen languages, including full version translations into English and Polish, and partial translations into Albanian, Chinese, Czech, French, Greek, Portuguese, Serbian, and Spanish.

Maríanna Clara says that Kvennafrí has attracted the attention of organisers in other countries as well. “Women in Norway have been in touch with us, as have women in Poland, Italy, and Germany. We decided, since there was a call for it, to have a slogan in English, too: ‘Don’t Change Women, Change the World.’”