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QZ&A: Iceland’s president on how to build a country for both men and women

blue lagoon
Reuters/Gwladys Fouche
Visitors enjoy a drink in the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa in Grindavik, Iceland, May 25, 2016.
By Caitlin Hu
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Iceland is the fairest country in the world, when it comes to how men and women are treated. According to the World Economic Forum’s annual “Gender Gap” report, Iceland ranked first for gender equality in 2017. And 2016. And 2015… In fact, it’s been the most gender-equal country for the past decade.

It’s not all roses, though; the country is still working on ending pay discrimination (in January, Iceland became the first nation to make it simply illegal to pay men more than women). And there are no legislative levers for certain cultural iniquities; the Icelandic neologism mammviskubit was recently coined to describe a modern “mother’s guilt” for not giving enough time and attention to her kids.

But with a population of fewer than 350,000, Iceland simply can’t afford to have half its people out of the workforce, points out Icelandic president Guðni Jóhannesson. On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last week, Quartz spoke with Jóhannesson about building a gender-equal society and his own run-in with unconscious bias.

Did the financial crisis play a role in Iceland’s national campaign for gender equality?

The drive for increased gender equality started before the financial crisis. Well before. But to be sure, there was a feeling that after the financial crisis, when the banking sector collapsed, that it was partly the fault of men who had lost some touch with reality, had grown in arrogance and recklessness, rather than showing caution and modesty.

However, I would not want to go down the road of ascribing [caution and modesty] to women rather than men; then you’re just encouraging some gendered images which you don’t necessarily want to do.

What catalyzed the movement for gender equality in Iceland?

We are a small nation. And we just cannot afford to have one half of the nation constantly subjugated.

We are a small nation. And we just cannot afford to have one half of the nation constantly subjugated. It just make perfect sense for everyone—economically, socially—to have a completely level field. And that is the aim of the HeforShe movement [a United Nations-initiated campaign that asks men to act in solidarity with women], for instance.

I happen to be a head of state, but I also happen to be a father of five: three boys and two girls. And I just want my daughters to enjoy the same opportunities and rights and chances as the boys. Just as for other girls and other boys. So it makes perfect sense to be totally gender-blind when it comes to rights and duties in society.

So when you come to UNGA, is the idea to show the Icelandic model to the world?

We need to be modest. Let me reiterate, [Icelanders] had our own #MeToo moments, and our own examples of totally unacceptable behavior. And we still have a way to go.

But what we have done is to take steps toward a fairer society. For instance, in Iceland we have affordable child care, which means that if couples decide to have children, it doesn’t mean that one member of the family, usually the woman, is forced to leave her job. Affordable child care benefits everyone.

We also have parental leave for both men and women. I should know that, I’ve used it five times. Those steps are important on the road to increased gender equality because it means that fathers can play a perfectly sensible role in the upbringing and that with affordable child care you can decide to have children without having to leave work.

And most recently, we have legislation enforcing equal pay. With this new legislation, companies of a certain size are required to prove that there is no gender pay gap.

That is the story that we want to tell and that is up to us to tell the story that it is working. It’s up to other countries to emulate our example.

How is it working out for you personally?

Well, the other day I delivered a speech in a small town in Iceland, and if I may say so myself, I thought it was a very decent speech. A fine speech. But then it was pointed out to me afterwards, “You quoted three people. You quoted three men. Why was there no mention of a woman in my speech?” And I got all defensive at first.

You know, I thought to myself, “There was no clear reason why I should do that.”

It just so happens that history is full of visible men and invisible women.

But then I started thinking as well, “I could have, I just didn’t think about it.” So you have to have more than just words, action must follow. And in that case I reminded myself, “I have to think about this. You know, the last thing I want to do is have people think I’m hypocritical about this.”

I’m a historian by profession, and it just so happens that history is full of visible men and invisible women. So that would be my defense, you know. I was talking about the origins of community colleges in Iceland and it was just men! It was just men talking about it!

But that doesn’t mean that only men existed in the past.

We do need to adapt the way we talk now, to account for the fact that men were more in the limelight in the past. Men survived on the pages of history, but that doesn’t mean this should continue in perpetuity.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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