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Iceland: A nice land for gender equality

Globe Staff Illustration/AP

BEYOND THE KNITTED HATS and viral hashtags of today’s resurgent feminist movement lies a trend that’s likely to be even more consequential: the record number of women who are running for public office. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, 439 women are expected to run for congressional seats in this year’s midterm election, more than at any time in US history. At least 79 women are candidates for governor, which, if the numbers hold, would double the previous record. And the wave cascades down to state legislatures and local town councils, not to mention the boards and commissions that are feeders for elected office.

The sheer number of women candidates at the gate almost guarantees that they will come closer to critical mass — if not precise parity — in the halls of political power. But what would more women in Congress or state government really mean? Beyond the matter of numerical equity, would tipping the scales toward the distaff make any practical difference?


Readers, I give you Iceland.

The Nordic island nation is the best place on earth to be a woman, according to the World Economic Forum. For the ninth year in a row, in 2017, Iceland led 143 other countries in the forum’s gender-gap index, which measures female achievement in economic participation, education, health, and political power.

It’s on that last indicator where Iceland especially shines. In 2016, women accounted for 48 percent of elected members of Iceland’s parliament. Its first woman president was elected in 1980, and the current prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, is a 41-year-old mother of three.

By contrast, the United States ranks 49th on the overall index, below Peru, Poland, Panama, and Portugal — and that’s just the P’s. We do well on education, but lag badly on political empowerment.


While not part of a perfect femtopia, Icelandic women enjoy benefits that elude much of the developed world. Both parents of newborns get three months of parental leave, paid at 80 percent of their working salary, and another three months to share between them. Day care and after-school programs are high quality and heavily subsidized. Health care is a national right. Set-asides ensure that nearly half the country’s corporate board seats are held by women.

Admittedly, Iceland is a far different country than the United States: small, homogeneous, isolated. A majority of the population still believe in elves (or at least won’t rule out their existence). People like to eat fermented shark meat. It has more sheep than people, and more tourists than citizens. It is the birthplace of Bjork.

Still, the full representation of women in Icelandic politics has made a demonstrable difference in their everyday lives. And now, Iceland is forging an effort to conquer its final parity frontier: unequal wages. This month, Iceland became the first country to make it illegal for companies and government agencies to pay female employees less than men for the same work. The new law requires companies with more than 25 employees to analyze their salary structures every three years and report the results to a federal equal-pay commission. Those with persistent inequities face fines.

So, presumably, Iceland’s version of Hoda Kotb won’t make $18 million less than the disgraced man she replaced at NBC. Women in the National Basketball Association (or hockey, or curling) won’t be grossly underpaid compared with their male equivalents. Female law partners won’t earn, on average, 44 percent less than men.


Could such a law ever work in the United States? It would be controversial, no doubt, and would likely involve some voluntary compliance along with the government sticks. But a good first step would be electing more women to the bodies that make the laws.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.