If Iceland Can Do It, Why Can't We?

michelle king if iceland can do it

This year, Iceland became the first country in the world to make it illegal to pay men more than women for the same job. Under new legislation, companies and government agencies with more than 25 employees will have to complete certification to demonstrate pay equity or they will be fined.

Iceland's Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir says the legislation will require companies to demonstrate that they are paying men and women the same amount of money for completing the same types of work. “We are planning to implement this before 2022. We are trying to accelerate the process of change,” she says.

For many years Iceland has been at the forefront of implementing gender equality legislation - having topped the World Economic Forum's gender equality index for the past nine years. “It is great that we top this index but we are not there yet. We are seeing severe and ongoing issues. From the last election (in Iceland), the number of women in parliament actually went down. So, I don’t think it is as simple as achieving a gender equality goal and then sitting back and relaxing,” she says.

Jakobsdóttir hopes that by implementing the equal pay legislation Iceland will broaden the discussion of gender equality issues women face. “Hopefully it will also create a change in the culture.  You can make political policies that don't change culture but we have some good examples where it has. Like legislation for paternal and maternal leave, which changed the way young fathers think about their role as fathers," says Jakobsdóttir.

In this interview, Jakobsdóttir shares her plans for eradicating the gender pay gap by 2022 and how the #MeToo movement is the next area of focus for Iceland.

Michelle King: Iceland is often seen as leading the way on gender equality. Why is this legislation necessary?

Katrín Jakobsdóttir: You know it has been the aim of Iceland’s legislation since the early sixties – that men and women should get equal pay for comparable work. We still have a gender pay gap even though it has been diminishing in the last few years. It is now around 4.5 percent. We still have not reached the place we want to be. The last government passed the legislation to fix this and now it is my job to implement it.

King: Can you share how this will be implemented? 

Jakobsdóttir: Hopefully with this new tool, the Equal Pay Standard, we will see increased transparency, which will create more pressure on companies to eradicate the gender pay gap. Even though we have been moving in the right direction, it has been too slow. Transparency is needed if we are going to eradicate the gender pay gap. The Equal Pay Standard tool will enable that. The lack of transparency has proven very expensive for working women. So, it is very important that companies start to have more of this.

King: How have the recent #MeToo and Times Up movements impacted your work?

Jakobsdóttir: In the last few months, it has literally changed the debate not only around the world but also here in Iceland. We have seen women from all sectors stepping forward to share their experiences. It is interesting to see the shift in the culture. We see boys and men really listening to these stories. Men are now thinking about these things in a totally different way.

King: What is next in the gender equality agenda for Iceland?

Jakobsdóttir: A very important issue is the #MeToo movement and how we are going to react to that. What we are seeing is that the government is taking initiative in public institutions to embrace this issue and ensure we don’t just move on. We want to change the culture for good. This is probably the next big thing in Iceland. We are seeing all sectors talk about this and how we can actually change the culture. In Iceland, we also have a gender-based labor market with men and women predominantly in different sectors. So, we are also thinking about how we can have more gender equality across the different sectors.

King: What are you hoping other countries can learn from your equal pay legislation?

Jakobsdóttir: Hopefully, different countries can learn from our experience. We have an equal pay standard that should easily apply to larger societies. When this legislation passed, larger companies and employers’ unions were not too happy about it. They thought it would increase pressure and costs. Now they are working with us. I think this is something that all countries will encounter. It is not only about building a better society for Iceland. It is also very good for the economy. Gender equality increases the job participation of women. And it has been shown that having more gender-balanced boards improves companies performances. So, this has been an overall improvement to our labor market.

Michelle King is a leading global gender equality expert, with a focus on advancing women in the changing world of work. To stay up to date follow Michelle @michpking.