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Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir: The gender pay gap is now the most important equality issue

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir: The gender pay gap is now the most important equality issue

| Text: Guðrún Helga Sigurðardóttir, Photo: Gunnar V. Andrésson

Iceland’s Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir has managed what many thought near impossible. She has cut public spending in the wake of the market crash without negatively impacting Iceland’s social security system.

Today Iceland enjoys an economic growth of 2.5 to 3.5 percent. The European average is 0.5 percent. Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir is happy that Iceland has achieved such good economic results. The government has also succeeded on other fronts, notably on gender equality, she says. 

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir believes Iceland’s pre-economic crisis society was run according to male considerations. Power was held by only a small elite. The government has worked to change the old power structure in order to create fairer power sharing. This has mainly been done by giving more women access to power.   

“It is sometimes said said that things would look different if women had been in power before the crash.

“Women don’t take as many risks as men and are guided by other considerations. I think this can impact on leadership,” she says.

Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir points out that the government’s goal has been that at least half of the ministers should be women. And it has succeeded. The majority of the government posts are held by women. Department and parliamentary committees too boast 40 percent women members.

“We will soon achieve what Norway did a few years ago, which is 40 percent of all company board members being women,” says Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir.

Two-year adjustment

The government has earlier encouraged businesses to appoint women to managerial and other powerful posts. This has been slow work, however, says Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir. As a result, Iceland’s government has been forced to legislate in order to achieve gender equality on company boards, just like Norway did. The law says no more than 60 percent of company board members can be men and women should make up at least 40 percent of the board. It comes into force in 2013 when companies and pension funds must have at least 40 percent of either sex on their boards.

Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir points out that during Norway’s two-year adjustment period the number of female board members rose from less than 10 percent to nearly 32 percent, but so far this has not been the case in Iceland.

“I am sure the new law will give us an equally good result, even thought the transitional period has not provided us with the same quick result as seen in Norway,” she says.

Iceland’s government works on a four-year equality plan led by the Minister for Social Security. The government has also established a ministerial committee which will lead the government’s work on gender equality. It comprises the Minister for Social Security, the Minister for Finance, the Minister of the Interior and the Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir says the committee’s work will highlight the importance of the equality policy. The four government ministers already work with important issues such as human rights, prostitution and trafficking. Results have already been seen in the work to prevent and fight sexual violence and sexual assault. 

“We address these issues on the committee,” she says, and adds that Iceland now has a law banning the purchase of sex similar to the Swedish one. 

But what is you most important task right now? 

The Prime Minister doesn’t hesitate before answering:

“To fight the pay gap between men and women. The government has a project plan to achieve total wage equality.”

"The pay gap breaks my heart"

The government aims to develop a certification standard to achieve equal pay for equal work. Companies can use the standard and they will be awarded a certificate if they can prove that they are following the standard, paying equal wages for equal work. Sigurðardóttir hopes the certificate standard will become a sought-after tool for individual companies.

“Achieving equal pay for equal work is taking so long it breaks my heart,” says Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir.

“But we keep working and we will further our wage policy through our project plan.”

The public sector will head this development. Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir has so far been disappointed with the large pay gaps within the white-collar sector. Public institution management has a certain freedom to influence local wage moderation but often fails to take into account pay gaps between the sexes when money is being divided up.  

“The pay gap between men and women has grown, and we will now take this seriously,” she says.

The Icelandic Prime Minister has high hopes for the certification system. She thinks it will help private businesses and the public sector to focus their work on questions of equality.

Snail-speed progress

Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir is impatient and expects quick results. She is worried because the government has still not managed to achieve the desired result without the process now being forced forward.

“Changes to gender equality happens at snail-speed,” she says.

Iceland has changed its legislation on parental leave to allow men to take paternal leave without loosing out economically. Before the current legislation came into force only a small percentage of fathers took parental leave. Today between 80 and 90 percent of all fathers do. 

She believes parental leave is the single most important step forward for Iceland’s gender equality policies in recent years.

“The system means fathers loose their right to take leave if they don’t take a full three month parental leave. Fathers’ rights to parental leave cannot be transferred to the mothers,” she explains.

Parental leave has been reduced during the crisis. The government has been forced to make cuts by introducing a ceiling to parental leave compensation. But Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir says it is important to increase the compensation again as soon as possible.

“Now that our economy is on its way back up we will soon have the chance to increase the compensation for fathers and mothers on parental leave. This is high up on my list of priorities,” she says. 

Iceland’s EU membership application is being processed by the EU right now, under the auspices of the Danish presidency. Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir had expected that important questions for Iceland, like fisheries and agriculture, would be negotiated during Denmark’s presidency. But the chances for that happening are slim as the presidency comes to an end this summer.

She has just met Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who heads Denmark’s current EU presidency.

“I am not sure we will manage to look at fisheries and agriculture in time.”

The two female prime ministers had fruitful talks during their meeting in Copenhagen. They discussed general EU issues but also the block’s economic challenges. 

“We discussed Iceland’s application too, of course. I presented my views and she presented her opinions on the issue,” says Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir. She also adds that Iceland has met a great deal of good will from both the Danish people and from the other European countries.

More about Iceland’s Prime Minister:

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was born in Reykjavik in October 1942. 

Family: Married to author and dramatist Jónína Leósdóttir. They have three sons together. 

Sigurðardóttir was a union leader for flight attendants in the 1970s, but was elected a representative for Iceland’s parliament in 1978. She has been there ever since, and has served as the Social Democratic Alliance’s representative in several parliamentary committees and she has participated in international work. Sigurðardóttir was Minister for Welfare for several years. Since 2009 she has been Iceland’s Prime Minister.

Iceland’s government comprises nine ministers, five women and four men. The government is a coalition between The Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement.


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