Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Strike Felt Round the World

Iceland has been at the forefront of the struggle for gender equality for more than a century. It was 100 years ago, this past June, when Icelandic women received the right to vote in national elections and Icelandic immigrants and their descendants were instrumental in winning the same right for women in Manitoba a little more than six months later. We are proudly marking the centennial of these twin achievements on both sides of the sea. But the right to vote represents only one step on the road to gender equality and, notwithstanding the great strides that have been made, we have not yet arrived at our desired destination.

There’s another anniversary marking an important milestone in the quest for equality this year. It has been forty years since the women of Iceland made headlines around the world for their bold Women’s Day Off, something that is generally characterized as “the day the women of Iceland went on strike.” If you spend any time online, there’s a good chance you’ve received an email or have perhaps seen a Facebook post showing the huge crowd of women who gathered around Lækjartorg and Arnarhóll in midtown Reykjavík on October 24, 1975. I have been bombarded with messages from friends seeking to draw my attention to this historic event, as if it could have escaped my notice. I remember the “strike” vividly, if only because I can recall my mom teasing my dad about launching a sympathy strike of her own. It sticks in my head that dad made supper that day.

The United Nations had declared 1975 to be International Women’s Year. In Iceland, the strike was one of the events organized to mark the year, calling attention to inequality and demanding corrective action. It’s estimated that ninety percent of the country’s women took the day off – both at home and at the workplace – and somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 women descended on the heart of Reykjavík, filling the streets and squares for as far as the eye could see. They called for fair pay, equal opportunity, improved child care, and world peace. The women sang, listened to speeches, and networked amongst themselves, while their husbands and fathers, sons and brothers dealt with the effects of their one-day absence. Women and men alike learned a lot that day.

Five years later, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as a head of state. Not long afterwards, Kvennalistinn (The Women’s List) was organized as a political party and it competed in both municipal and national elections, winning three seats in Alþingi in the 1983 election and doubling its numbers four years later. Iceland’s women weren’t turning back.

Today, Iceland has the smallest gender gap in the world, according to the Global Gender Gap Index, which gives the county a score of 0.8594, where 1.0 would indicate full equality. Women graduating from university significantly outnumber men and Iceland leads the world in the proportion of women in professional and technical occupations. Women’s participation in the labour force is in the top ten and the wage gap has shrunk to about 20 percent. High-quality child care is readily available and affordable, while household responsibilities are shared more equitably than in other countries. Finally, Icelandic women are more politically empowered than anywhere else. Yet, even with these measures of success, the aspirations of 1975 have not been fully achieved – Icelandic women are better off than elsewhere, but full equality has not yet been achieved. Forty years later, there’s still work to do, but Iceland’s experience and tangible progress still serve as an inspiration to women around the world who long for equality – and the men who stand with them as allies.