Publisher’s note: Elizabeth Reid is a Canadian-Icelandic author and has been the first lady of Iceland since 2016. She is the co-founder of Iceland Writers Retreat and the author of “Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and how they are Changing the World.” The opinions expressed in this article belong exclusively to the author of it.
(CNN) — One of the most vivid memories of my early years in Iceland is of an unusually mundane place: a board meeting of the male-dominated software company I worked for in Reykjavik in 2003.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for the (mostly male) attendees. But for me, a twentysomething immigrant from Canada, it wasn’t the fact that the board president was leading the meeting while she was nursing her child that struck me, it was the banality of it all: no one flinched.
Other moments, over the nearly two decades since then, have gradually revealed to me a society in which women are treated on the same level as men, or at least there is an intention to do so.
Many of them are glimpses into my own life: My husband took several months of paternity leave from his job as a historian (before he was elected President of Iceland) after the birth of each of our four children.
Our daughter bears my last name and not her father’s. My 40 year old friend just had her first child with the help of an anonymous sperm donor and she will not face any stigma for raising her child on her own.
My trans friend Ugla can go to the pool with me and is not forced to use the locker room that does not represent her true gender. And while I hold the immensely rewarding and unofficial position of first lady, I continue to work, even leading an annual writers’ retreat that I co-founded.
These are some of the most common aspects of a country that has topped the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for the last twelve years. It is also probably not a coincidence that Iceland is also the most peaceful country in the world, one of the happiest, and that its population has one of the longest life expectancies in the world.
Sometimes the international press describes us as a “genre paradise”, although those of us who live here are quick to add the word “but” to that statement. Iceland is not a paradise of the genre. Only one company listed on the Icelandic Stock Exchange is headed by a woman.
Women of foreign origin face additional prejudice, discrimination and isolation. And the entire country is being brought before the European Court of Human Rights by a group of women who believe their rights were violated by the treatment they received after making allegations of gender-based violence to the police.
I am often asked if there is a model that other countries can follow to achieve the level of equality that we have in Iceland. Its not that easy. We’ve had strong female role models, including the world’s first democratically elected female head of state, and the world’s first openly gay female head of government. We are also a small country, with a population smaller than many cities, so we have to make sure that everyone does their part.
The fight for gender equality in Iceland has been going on for decades. The difference that individuals can make was especially apparent during the legendary “Day Without a Woman” in October 1975, during which 90% of Icelandic women took the day off, not going to their paid jobs and refusing to participate in unpaid household chores.
Unsurprisingly, the country came to a standstill and the day galvanized the nation to take action. “Day Without Women” events are still held regularly to protest wage inequality between the sexes.
There are policies and laws that help facilitate this march towards parity: parental leave paid by the government for both parents; heavily subsidized nurseries; gender quotas on the boards of publicly traded companies; a law that states that companies must show that they pay equal pay for equal work. All this shows that we have passed the turning point in which it was discussed whether trying to achieve gender equality is a worthy goal and now how to achieve it is being debated.
However, policies can only take us so far. As individuals, we all have a role to play. Gender equality is not a “women’s issue” that elected officials have to achieve. It does not pit one gender against another. Gender equality is a human rights issue and working to improve it benefits everyone.
As individuals, we can do a lot, from seeking the jobs we want even when our gender is underrepresented in them, to consuming media, literature, music, art, and sport with a lens of diversity and inclusion.
We must remain vigilant. Change comes not only from the all too staggering pace of legislative adjustments and shifts in public opinion, but comes from stringing together many infinitesimal moments of progress. Little things matter: in little Iceland we know this lesson well.
We can all be role models, whether in our families, communities, workplaces, educational institutions, or places of worship. It is up to us to use our voices and help amplify the voices of others who need to be heard.
The old Icelandic word “sprakkar” means exceptional or extraordinary woman. However, the word is not exclusive to people who understand that language. There are “sprakkar” everywhere. On this International Women’s Day, I encourage you to recognize them, lift them up, amplify their voices, and remember the influence we can all have in creating a more equitable world for all.
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