There is every reason to consider seriously how things might change if women and men manned posts of power in equal numbers throughout the world.
After a 35-year career in Icelandic politics, I have concluded that women are generally better than men at ensuring fairness in society. The world would truly be a better place if equal numbers of women and men were at the helm. My chance to test this theory arrived in 2009, when I became prime minister of Iceland as the country faced a period of acute economic turmoil.
The circumstances were unprecedented. People in droves had lost their savings, and most families’ debts had increased to unmanageable proportions. Iceland itself was on the brink of bankruptcy. My government was determined to defend the social welfare system despite the broad cuts we had to make. Luckily, we were able to drag the country back from the brink.
It is my conviction that a factor in our success was the role that women played in my government.
After 13 years as a minister, I witnessed firsthand how more diversity around the table was a good thing. There were times I was the only woman in the cabinet, and I faced opposition and pushback from my male colleagues. In 2009 I presided over a cabinet that for the first time in Iceland’s history included an equal number of men and women. Experience had showed me that women are often more favorably disposed toward building a strong welfare system, and in the wake of the financial crisis, such a system was essential to ensuring people’s basic needs, reducing unemployment and protecting low-income families.
Women also proved to be wiser than men as the financial crisis unfolded. There were hardly any women among the managers of the Icelandic banks that defaulted in 2008. In fact, it was banks run by women, such as Audur Capital, that provided the best examples of how to weather the financial storm. In contrast, the chief executives of companies that were hardest hit by the crash were predominantly male.
In recent years gender imbalance around the world has been reduced, especially in the West. More women than ever hold positions of power worldwide; glass ceilings have been shattered. But more work is needed. We must continue to eliminate barriers that hinder women in the job market.
The economic impact of equal gender participation in the workplace makes a compelling case for gender equality. In Northern Europe, for instance, increased female employment accounts for up to 0.40 percent of average annual gross domestic product growth per capita, according to a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
If we wish to reap the benefits of gender equality, however, equal parental responsibility and a strong welfare system are crucial. In Iceland things changed radically for both sexes in 2000 when the government established a man’s independent right to paternity leave. That meant that employers could no longer assume that only women would be taking parental leave at some point to start a family.
Equal access and equal pay for men and women are other important requirements. In June 2017, the Icelandic Parliament passed a law obliging public and private companies to prove that they paid their employees the same wage for the same job, regardless of gender. While I was prime minister, another law requiring that women hold at least 40 percent of seats on company boards and pension funds came into force. My government was also the first in Iceland to ensure that the same quota be met on public committees, boards and councils.
“When does women’s work become real work? When no woman turns up to do it,” Jennifer Weiner wrote last year in an Op-Ed in The New York Times. She was exactly right. The jobs women do will not be fully appreciated unless we make it glaringly obvious how important they are. But how can we do that?
What Icelandic women chose to do many years ago, in October 1975, was to go on strike. We had had enough of institutionalized gender inequality and we took action, demanding equal pay. The objective was to spotlight women’s contributions to society and demonstrate how undervalued our work was. Ninety percent of Icelandic women took part in the strike, refusing to work, cook or look after children. Society was brought almost to a standstill.
It was that first act of protest that got the ball rolling. In 1980, Vigdis Finnbogadottir became the first directly elected female president in the democratic world. Following the strike, the number of women elected to Iceland’s Parliament increased significantly, and even more after the founding of Women’s List, a feminist political party, in 1983. In 1975, only 5 percent of members of Parliament were women; by 1983 that number rose to 15 percent and, in 2016, to 47.6 percent.
Gender equality is not just about the law and women’s formal rights; it is also about ensuring that women have equal access to power and its impact on society. Little more than lip service is often paid to this necessity, and there is often too little political will to enforce any effective change. We need to work harder toward a more substantive and participatory version of gender equality.
As Iceland’s experience shows, giving women an equal say in how business and society are run can change the world for the better.