IT’S a pretty island nation in the corner of the North Atlantic, where everybody knows everyone else, and the recent economic crash has left an indelible mark.
It’s trendy, expensive to visit, with stunning scenery and wonderful people. And no, it’s not Ireland. Because here’s another clue — it’s been named the best place in the world for women to live, for the last five years in a row.
And the accolade is not the result of some PR spin or tabloid survey, but a report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) – that austere global think-tank that keeps an eye on how nations are treating it citizens. And when it comes to women, it seems, Iceland has it sussed.
The WEF report looked at countries under several different criteria – the level of gender gap in areas like pay and career success, healthcare, childcare and political representation.
Currently, Finland ranks in second position, and Norway holds the third place in the overall ranking. Sweden holds fourth position. It may surprise some that Ireland (6) ranked ahead of Denmark (8), with Switzerland at 9, New Zealand, 7, Philippines, 5, and Nicaragua, 10, completing the top 10, (the UK ranks at 18, Germany, 14).
While Ireland’s ranking at sixth in the world seems pretty respectable, on closer inspection, and to quote a well-worn joke, there’s certainly more than a letter in the difference between Ireland and Iceland, at least when it comes to women.
For starters, there’s generous maternity benefit, and there are plans to make it even better. Parents are entitled to nine months’ benefit – which comprises three months for the mother, three for the father, and a further combined three months for both.
The Icelandic government pays 80% of the parent’s salary and the time off also applies to adoption, fostering, miscarriage after 18 weeks and stillbirth after 22 weeks.
There is talk of extending the 9 months’ total to 12 months, and parents can also take up to 4 months’ unpaid leave at any stage, until the child reaches 8. There are also good supports for pregnant women as any absences from work due to pregnancy appointments or related matters are built into their contracts.
These strong supports are a reflection of a country that has a history of independent women. With fishing such a major source of income for centuries, leaving many women to give birth or rear children on their own, the community often rallied around with financial and emotional help.
It’s no surprise, then, that Iceland has one of the highest rates of births to unmarried women in the world. There has never been any real stigma attached to women having babies on their own, or with multiple fathers. There are very few instances of women tolerating bad relationships, for the sake of the children.
Ania Wozniczka is from Poland but has lived in Iceland for seven years, after falling for “a Viking”. She is very aware of the differences in both cultures: “Your life here isn’t planned as in my homeland — you don’t have to finish university at the age of 25 and get married and have a kid or two by the age of 30 and live in a routine work-home-work-home ever after,” says Ania, who is also chairperson of lobby-group, Women in Iceland.
“Also, social life is well developed here. I would say it’s very family-friendly and worker-friendly. People here treat all this as a natural thing, but for me it’s still a privilege.”
It’s a very equal society on an individual level, she says, but when it comes to business: “I would say the gap between salaries of women and men who are top executives is still high. At least, politicians, authorities and different associations acknowledge this as a problem, and are trying to do something about it.”
TV journalist, Thora Arnórsdóttir, a presidential candidate in 2012, is a perfect example of Iceland’s many ‘blended’ families – she has three children with her new partner, and is stepmom to his own three children from an earlier relationship. What’s more, she ran a campaign while heavily pregnant, and gave birth just days before the election. The baby was given a nickname — Sky — as there was no time to think of a full name until several weeks after the birth. ‘Sky’ was a regular feature on the campaign trail in the run-up to Polling Day.
But Thora did admit that she was a bit surprised at the reaction to her candidacy in the perceived ‘liberal’ Iceland.
“As a woman I know I could, would and should expect it,” she told the UK’s Guardian. “It’s amazing that we haven’t advanced as much as we thought, because this rhetoric is very much going on out there, with people saying, ‘She should be at home with her children’. But very few say it directly to us.”
So maybe Iceland isn’t quite the role model for women that the WEF would have us believe. Like many Icelanders, freelance film editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir has lived and worked in many countries, and thinks Iceland still has a way to go to become the ideal society for women. She would like to see “true equality” because women are still falling behind when it comes to pay.
“We are not a Utopian society — we have a different hierarchy from the rest of the world. Firstly, we are a patriarchal society, but at least we are far more aware of it than many other societies. But awareness also brings anger over the injustices.”
Elísabet also feels that being a woman in the film industry is particularly tough: “The objectification of women in film does affect the dynamics between me and my male co-workers in the film business. I also know I’m not getting paid the same as my male peers.”
She says if Iceland really does top the world’s societies for women, then “it underlines how bad the situation is elsewhere”.
“I have four children, aged between nine and 30 years old, three boys and a girl. I have noticed a very different approach in school to my sons and my daughter. I was even once called in to discuss why my daughter was so independent — something no one ever complained about with the boys.”
Although childcare is considered good, she believes the situation was better for single mums in the past. “There’s 20 years between my youngest and oldest child, and 20 years ago the childcare system was better for single moms than it is today, but then, it’s better today for couples than it was then.”
Originally from Co Down, Marion McGreevy, a mother of grown-up children, has been living in Iceland for over 30 years. She runs a hair salon in Reykjavik and also works as a part-time craft artist.
“There is a pretty good system for children in Iceland from an early age,” she admits, “and playschool — from the age of two until five — is very good. What’s more, parents can leave their kids in playschool from 8am-5pm, so everyone can work. And yes, there’s a good support system for married and single people, but at the moment as things are, people still need a lot of help from their families.”
The women in Iceland are very aware of equality and simply refuse to be anything but equal, says women’s football coach John Andrews, from Mahon in Cork. A brother of Olympic athlete Marian Heffernan, John has worked in Reykjavik since 2008 and gives an Irish perspective on the place of women in Iceland.
“Up until last year the Icelandic women’s soccer team were a power in European football, while the men were languishing in the lower realms of Fifa’s rankings. Also, Iceland has had a number of Miss Worlds over the past 20-25 years, and those are two reasons why women here have a fantastic sense of self-worth and confidence.
“I think women are promoted brilliantly in this country and are determined to succeed as well as their male counterparts. From what I have observed, Iceland is a fantastic place for women to live, and is a fantastic example of how a people should act as a society in dealing with problems such as inequality, and of course politics and the banking crisis.”
But Elísabet points to the rise in crimes against women: “The numbers from women’s shelters in Iceland, the number of rape victims, the few number of rapes being prosecuted, and the court verdicts, all show that Iceland is not good to all women.”
That sentiment is echoed by Helga Magnusson, 47, who works in IT in Reykjavik: “I feel there is a lack of respect for women, and the sad thing is that rape sentences are just a joke.”
Sex trafficking is a problem, and, says Helga, “when men buy a prostitute, they are showing all of us total disrespect.”
Helga was already a mother when she went to college in California but returned home many years ago, to what she calls her “beautiful country”.
“To give birth in Iceland is wonderful,” she admits. “We have very good childcare, and I love the equal parenting maternity leave. All the midwives, doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, and teachers are really professional and great, and mostly women of course, But they are not paid the same as their male counterparts. Yes, we do have a strong system to take care of children, and a very good children’s hospital.”
The Reykjavik hospital she refers to grew from a women’s group set up in the 40s — and is still partially financed by it.
“It’s still a nice and safe country to raise children in. One is rather safe on the streets after midnight still, but sorry to say, it’s changing, and crime rates, though low now, are rising.”
Safety is one of the reasons why Czech native Lucie Pospisilova thinks Iceland tops the list. Although Lucie is currently unemployed in Iceland, she has worked there during her three years in Reykjavik. “I don’t think it’s only Iceland, but also all the other Nordic countries are not a bad place for a woman to live in. But probably because of the safety here, Iceland takes the first place.” The only issue she sees for women in Iceland is that men get paid more for the same positions, and this needs to change.
Social media expert Marianna Fridjonsdottir, 60, has spent 40 years in Iceland, on and off. “Iceland is a better place to be a woman, in the last 30 years or so, than most places,” she says, but agrees with Lucie that it is also good to be a woman in Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries.
“The smallness of our population makes it possible to create a different gender pressure than in other bigger societies. And without equality, the species will not survive.”
Líney Inga Arnórsdóttir, who’s in her twenties and works in tourism in Reykjavik, has recently moved home from New York and feels crimes against women are still very low compared to other countries.
“I think I have a good perspective as I have lived in four countries,” she points out. “There are few sex crimes in Iceland, and women are safe everywhere. Sex crimes are looked down upon and strip joints are illegal. It’s also a small community-type society so no-one is anonymous. We, of course, have a small underground drug industry, but there is about one murder every two years, there’s very little theft and no guns.” She is also delighted that a new law has just been passed which says that the boards of all companies with 50 or more employees must be at least 40pc women.
This was partially inspired by the collapse of the banking sector in recent years – an industry almost exclusively controlled by men at the time.
The government, elected last year, can be in no doubt that there is an appetite for change, after the country hit the headlines in such a dramatic fashion with 2008’s bust, and the uncharacteristically violent street protests by angry citizens.
Heiða Helgadóttir was born 30 years ago in Washington DC where her father was studying, but moved to Iceland soon after. She co-founded the Best Party, the biggest party at local level, and is also the co-chair of the Bright Future party, which has six seats in the Icelandic Parliament. She is hoping to persuade more men to “fight the good fight for a more equal society.”
“We are getting there,” she admits, “but too slowly. There is a huge generational gap, though, so I have reason to believe that we will be moving faster. But there needs to be a more respect for the feminine side, and feminine values in both sexes, in order for women to stand up for themselves and what they have to offer. We don’t need to change, or be more like men.
“But I am very proud to be an Icelandic woman and I want us to be role models for other women around the globe. But that doesn’t mean we can say we are perfect. We are perfectly imperfect.”
Helga says she is treated fairly by her male peers most of the time. “But when I’m not, it’s like being kicked in the stomach. When men talk to each other as if you are not there, or repeat what you said as if you didn’t already say that … I’ve had those moments. Sometimes I have addressed them, sometimes I have chosen not to. But as time goes by, I find myself more willing to take my power back when I experience someone taking it away from me.”
Helga Magnusdottir !says that too many young women today are rejecting the ‘feminist’ tag as unhelpful in their bid to get on. “The word feminist is almost threatened now, and many young women say that they are not feminists because they want ‘to please’, and ‘be accepted’, and that scares me.” She acknowledges that Icelanders have something of a superiority complex: “We think we are better than other nations. We have a better culture, and we have the world’s oldest Parliament, after all.”
Líney admits that a lot of Iceland’s independent women can probably trace their lineage back to the Vikings. “We have a strong heritage of equality dating back to them – they had women warriors and it’s been ingrained in our culture since then.” But, she points out, even equality has its drawbacks. “I must say that chivalry is dead. Women and men here pay for everything equally. Even dinner.”
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