Sonya Lennon
Sonya Lennon

Workplace lessons from the world’s most gender-equal country – and the coolest

With shared parental leave, gender pay gap audits and a culture of respect, Iceland is a good place for women to work

Sitting like meerkats, directly behind the driver and guide of a 50-seater bus, on the way to seek the Northern Lights, four politicians and equality advocates intently listened in to a slice of Icelandic working life.

“I’ve just come back from a shamanic sweat lodge where we run a programme to help people in addiction recovery reintegrate into society, it was amazing,” beamed Hulta, our charismatic female guide. Listening intently, our male driver soaked it all up and, when the story was told, responded with: “Wow, Hulta, you’re an amazing woman.” Our party spoke about it afterwards and tried to remember a time when we had experienced such open, comfortable admiration from a man to a woman in the workplace. We couldn’t.

“If you’re not part of the revenue, you’re not part of the decision-making.” “Always have your running-away money.” These were the mantras of my childhood – my working mother was insistent that financial empowerment was the only way forward. Perhaps no great surprise that gender equality and systemic change has become a big driver in my life and the inspiration behind Work Equal, which has supported more than 4,000 women in the workplace. Which is why I found myself on a study tour, with members of the cross-party Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality to the world’s most gender-equal country, Iceland.

The truth is that we need to innovate our legacy systems, improve our business cultures and lead ourselves and others towards a respectful, empathetic and inclusive society. Men must be granted permission to relax into being a major part of the solution. Does this sound utopian? According to research from Behaviour & Attitudes (B&A), 74 per cent of the population believe that closing the gender pay gap should be a priority for business and government. That is a positive sentiment, but behaviours need to change.

Our small country is making strides towards gender equality with strong political will. The Gender Pay Gap Information Bill has been enacted, and reporting is about to launch for businesses with more than 250 employees. The Citizens’ Assembly issued 45 recommendations which the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality is now parsing into proposed policy and legislation.

On the trip to Iceland, I had extraordinary access at the highest level and learned through conversation and observation how the world’s most gender-equal country got there. According to Iceland’s trade unions, business leaders, members of parliament and prime minister, it’s a case of “a lot done, more to do”.

When I revealed the challenges that we face in this country, there was lots of kindly Icelandic muttering and shrugging, as though we’d just crawled out of the primordial ooze

The big levers for change have been driven by legislation. Nothing happens by accident. There is mandatory shared parental leave on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. It works out as 4.5 months per parent (whether they’re together or not) and six weeks to toggle between both as preferred. It is socially frowned upon for a man not to play his part in early childcare. The benefits of this, to the child and the father, are well documented. Over and above the relational value, it has the fundamental benefit of levelling the playing field in the workforce when a man is just as likely to take time out for childcare as a woman.

The second lever is universal, affordable, sustainable childcare (where parents pay approximately 10 per cent of the total cost). When I revealed the challenges that we face in this country, there was lots of kindly Icelandic muttering and shrugging, as though we’d just crawled out of the primordial ooze. In Iceland, early-years care is not positioned as a mechanism to allow parents to go to work, but rather as the right of the child to be socialised and receive a rounded education through a defined curriculum.

Their gender auditing is different to our proposed pay gap reporting. A certified auditor assesses the company’s credentials, then, if all is in order, a national kitemark is awarded and displayed on goods and services. It’s simply not cool to be a company that discriminates against women in policy and practice. And Icelanders are very cool.

We met Andrés Ingi Jónsson of the Pirate Party along with Jón Steindór Valdimarsson of the Liberal Party for lunch, both with sustainability and health credentials. Although both spoke pointedly through the lens of party politics, they also shared their personal experiences. “I’m sure my wife would tell you I could be better in the home, helping more, and that there’s a difference between the concept and the practice of equality here. I do try hard,” says Valdimarsson.

“Gender equality has changed our values as a country,” says prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, “We’re a better place now.” Jakobsdóttir is, understandably, a sought-after speaker internationally as an equality change maker.

I could feel it on the streets of Reykjavik. The people are happy and smiling, random cyclists wave at me and say “hi, hi”. It’s not perfect: there are issues with health and mental health services and a hanging referendum on political reform, but according to the World Happiness Report, Iceland is the world’s third-happiest nation. The people are relaxed and confident enough to know they can always get better and, even as the most gender-equal country in the world, they will always have more to learn.

“Hello, I’m your server today,” said the quintessentially cool Reykjavik native to the table next to us. “It’s my first day, I’m just getting started, so please bear with me. Now, tell me everything.”

Sonya Lennon is an entrepreneur and equality advocate