Iceland: The First Country to End Gender Inequality?

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Gender equality issues, and more precisely pay gap, has been at the centre of the media’s attention in the last few years, including the controversial international women strike. While in a study published by Deloitte last year, it was estimated that the gender wage difference will not be resolved until 2069, Icelandic women organised a strike last October in the capital Reykjavik, leaving work early to protest in the streets against the discrimination they face. In response to these demonstrations, it seems the government has decided to tackle one of the biggest inequality issues in the world.

To close the wage gap between men and women, Iceland’s parliament is examining a bill which would oblige companies to give evidence of equal pay to employees. If the bill was passed, firms that show clear indications of wages inequality would face auditing and possible fines if they do not act in compliance with the new law.

The bill states that both the public and private sector would be subject to the law, and would also prohibit any discrimination in addition to gender, including religion, disability, occupational disability, age and sexual orientation grounds.

Thorsteinn Viglundsson,  the Icelandic minister of social affairs and equality, explained to the news agency AFP:

The bill entails that companies and institutions of a certain size, 25 or more employees, undertake a certification of their equal-pay programmes.

While this would be the first law in the world of this kind, it is not surprising that it comes from Iceland. The country has a history of gender equality progressiveness, and in October 1975, it organised the first universal women’s strike, known as Women’s Day Off, which has now become a public holiday. The demonstration gathered 90% of the female population to leave their work and their homes to protest. A few years after, Iceland elected the world’s first female head of state, the single working mother Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. The first women president that has lead to 20 years of female regency in the last 50 years.

In 2012, a voluntary measure for equal pay across the country, was introduced. It was defended by the fact that 50% of the lawmakers in the Icelandic parliament are women. Similar legislation introduced indicated that company board members now have to be composed with 40% of women. Iceland was also the country that was ranked first in the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap.  Indeed, whereas the pay gap is on average around 15% in Europe today, it remained as large as 17% in Iceland.

The bill’s prospects in Parliament faces a high chance of acceptance. Indeed, presented to Parliament two weeks ago, it was quickly supported by the government’s centre-right coalition, and the opposition. In the upcoming weeks, it will now be subject to various parliamentary debates, and, if it passes through parliament, the act will take effect from January 2018.

Nevertheless, many do not think that enough is being done. Indeed, the charges faced in cases of no compliance clearly lacks severity and would depend on the fine, which would not mean much for big multinational corporations. Even though these are valid criticisms, Iceland has shown its thirst of modernity and demonstrated that it is the only country which is officially trying to tackle this world issue that many try, on the contrary, to hide and dismiss.

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