Iceland tops gender equality ranking, now it’s calling for better with ‘women’s day off’ strike

Tuesday marks nearly a half a data sgp century since Iceland’s famous “kvennafrí” (women’s day off) of 1975 when 90 per cent of the country’s women went on strike and refused to work.

The strike created vital change in Iceland, paving the way for the world’s first female elected president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who was head of state from 1980 to 1996.

To mark the date, tens of thousands of women and non-binary people across Iceland are planning to refuse to do any paid or unpaid labour to protest about gender inequality and the pay gap.

“They are striking for 24 hours to protest systematic wage discrimination and gender-based violence,” Finnborg Salome Steinþórsdóttir, one of the strike’s organisers, told i.

Although Iceland topped the 2023 World Economic Forum’s global gender gap rankings for the 14th consecutive year, women say that much more needs to be done to address the undervaluing of their work in society.

The term gender pay gap usually refers to the difference between men’s and women’s average hourly pay. In Iceland, the unadjusted pay gap (the difference in gross hourly earnings between men and women) is 9.1 per cent. In the UK, the pay gap was 8.3 per cent in 2022.

While there has been progress over the years in minimising the hourly pay gap in Iceland, organisers are now focusing on the difference between the take-home, monthly incomes of men and women.

“The gender difference in average income is 21 per cent,” said Ms Steinþórsdóttir. “That’s a lot. The reason behind that number is that women are more likely to be in jobs that are undervalued or less paid.”

Ms Steinþórsdóttir said the income gap reflects how women work fewer hours, are in lower-paid sectors, take longer leave than men when they have children, and are typically expected to take time off work to care for family members.

“It reflects society,” she said. “And we should change that to move forward towards equality.”

But women and non-binary people striking on Tuesday haven’t just been urged to avoid paid work – they’ve also been encouraged not to do any unpaid work like childcare or domestic duties.

“Women are taking on more than men,” Steinunn Rögnvalds, another strike organiser, told i.

Iceland offers four-and-a-half months’ leave to each parent after the birth of a baby, but women still tend to carry the responsibility for the “second shift” – ongoing childcare and domestic tasks in the home – and “third shift” – the mental load of managing daily family life.

“We are demanding men take equal responsibility for the work at home and caring for family members, and for the mental load of organising everything,” she said. “Then women will have equal opportunities at work.”

“[If we ignore inequalities] we are turning a blind eye to all the things that can be better,“ Ms Rögnvalds said. “We would just ignore the problems, and nothing would change.”

Ms Rögnvalds has been told by those in opposition to the strikes that her actions are “too much” and “too radical”, but she doesn’t let this deter her.

“We won’t stop until we have full equality,” she said.

The other primary demand of the strike is for action against gender-based and sexual violence that has affected 40 per cent of women in Iceland.

Both Ms Steinþórsdóttir and Ms Rögnvalds said that undervaluing and underpaying women has a direct link to violence.

“Without financial security, we cannot ensure women are free,” Ms Steinþórsdóttir said. “But it’s the other way around too – if we have violence, it impacts women’s participation in the labour market and potential to gain income.

“You have to secure that people don’t have to rely financially on someone. That they are independent and truly free.”