What Iceland can teach Australia on gender equality

A decade ago, Iceland became a symbol of the global financial crisis.

Today, the Nordic island nation has largely cleaned up its act and is the epitome of how to improve social and economic outcomes when lifting paid participation of women.

In 2017, Iceland was the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) fastest growing economy out of 35 countries including Australia.

Iceland last week topped the World Economic Forum's (WEF) 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, which measures gaps between men and women in the key areas of education, health, economics and politics.

It found that Iceland has almost closed its gender gap in these areas - 87 per cent of the Icelandic gender gap has been closed, having been reduced by 10 per cent since 2006.

This makes Iceland among the fastest nations to reach gender equality. Australia, meanwhile, ranked 35th out of 144 countries.

What is Iceland's secret?

The WEF asked the Icelandic Ministry of Welfare to prepare a report answering that question.

It said success had been incremental but due to a number of push-and-pull forces, which after decades are bearing fruit.

First, in Iceland, women call out problems where they see it.

Or, as the ministry officials put it, they make "invisible realities of women visible".

Iceland women began agitating more than 40 years ago.

On October 24, 1975, there was a massive wave of professional and domestic strikes.

Icelander women had refused to carry out domestic work and childcare to prove that society would be paralysed without women's labour.

Decades on, such protests continue.

In October last year, thousands of women across Iceland walked out of their workplaces at 2.38pm.

Women's rights groups had calculated the pay gap meant that, after that time each day, women were working for free.

Such agitations have led to a number of law changes - the other main cause of Iceland's success on gender equality.

Iceland now has one of the most gender equal parliaments in the world, with 48 per cent of lawmakers being women in 2016.

In 2008, Iceland passed a law that requires at least 40 per cent of each gender to be represented on boards and in senior management in public corporations.

In 2010, Iceland's government adopted a 40 per cent gender quota for private company boards, which took hold on September 1, 2013.

Despite a declining gender gap its government is determined to reduce it further.

It has pledged to eradicate the gender pay gap by 2022.

The government wants to make it compulsory for all companies with 25 employees or more to develop a certification scheme for gender pay equality.

On International Women's Day it said its aim was to ensure that all jobs of equal value are paid the same - that is, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or nationality.

According to opinion polls, Icelanders generally support quotas.

It is unlikely the majority of Australians would support moving to a quota system despite there being the need for one.

The Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) had set a target for 30 per cent of board seats to be filled by women by the end of 2018.

It wanted ASX 200 companies to voluntarily meet it, rather than face government mandates.

It's clear now that target is now not going to be met.

At the end of August there were 25.4 per cent female directors across the ASX 200 - only marginally above the 25.3 per cent achieved by the end of 2016, and still 11 boards with no women.

Public buy-in is essential for quota systems to work.

There has also been criticism in Iceland that there are no penalties for companies that fail to abide by the rules.

But there is still much we can learn from Iceland.

When Iceland's new pay audit policy was announced this year, Equality and Social Affairs Minister Thorsteinn Viglundsson said: "The time is right to do something radical about this issue."

Australia needs to get radical if it wants to end systemic pay inequality.

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This story What Iceland can teach Australia on gender equality first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.