October 05, 2015

The Country with the Most Gender Equality in the World

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

I recently visited the most gender equal country in the world. Can you guess what it is? It is known as the land of fire and ice, its economy relies heavily on fish and tourism, and its name is a bit deceiving. The answer is Iceland.

Like most visitors to this country that sits between the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, I was not visiting Iceland to get a sociological lesson in gender equality. Instead, I was there to experience the awe-inspiring natural beauty that seems to be right in front of you no matter where you turn. With an abundance of volcanoes, lava fields, glaciers, fjords, waterfalls, beaches, and valleys, Iceland is a nature-lover’s dream.  

Photo courtesy of the author

As I learned during my visit, Iceland is not only unique for its geographical wonders; it is also distinguishable because of its commitment to gender equality. According to the World Economic Forum, for the sixth year in a row Iceland ranked first among 142 nations on the Global Gender Index (the U. S. ranked 20th). This index was based on four categories: Economics and Employment (labor force participation; comparable pay for comparable work; earned income; and the extent of a glass ceiling); Education (literacy and enrollment); Life Expectancy; and Politics (percentage of women in political power).

So how did Iceland become the most gender equal nation in the world? Is there something in the DNA of Iceland’s Viking heritage? This tiny, Nordic country of less than 330,000 achieved this distinction the same way all social change occurs: through struggle, protest, and power.

Iceland’s most notable event on the path toward gender equality occurred forty years ago on October 24, 1975, when 90% of Icelandic women went on strike. Led by a feminist group called the Red Stockings, nearly all of the women in the country not only stayed home from work, they also refused to do the work of the home: no cooking, cleaning, or taking care of the children. As a result of this mass protest, the country was nearly at a standstill. Men brought their kids with them to work, schools and shops were shut down, and ready-made foods purchased by desperate husbands and fathers quickly sold out in grocery stores.

Since this historic strike, Iceland has been on a slow but steady march toward greater gender equality. One year after the strike, the country enacted legislation outlawing gender discrimination. Five years after the strike, the country elected their first female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir. Finnbogadottir, who held this position for four successive terms from 1980—1996, was not only the first female head of state of Iceland but of any European nation.


Vigdis Finnbogadottir; Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although this gender revolution produced some notable political victories, the economic effects were felt more slowly. In 2005, thirty years after the strike, the wage gap still persisted with women only earning about 65% of their male counterparts. Women went on strike again that year and currently the wage gap has narrowed so that women’s earnings are now approximately 80% of  men’s (for comparison, the wage gap in the United States is 77%, although it’s significantly wider for women of color).

In my relatively short time in the country, it was difficult for me to find obvious examples of Iceland’s status as the most gender equal country in the world. Probably the best example I saw, and one that is quite subtle yet indicative of gender equality, was in the men’s locker room of the community pool in the tiny fishing town of Suðureyri. Iceland is full of swimming pools, there seems to be at least one in every town, and it is required that everyone showers thoroughly before entering pools. Right next to the men’s shower in the Suðureyri locker room was a highchair—presumably for fathers who are at the pool with their babies. The existence of this highchair symbolized the norm of gender equality in that child care duties in Iceland are not exclusively the domain of mothers but are expected to be performed by both parents.  


Photo courtesy of the author

The highchair in the locker room also highlights an important structural component of gender equality that I could not really see: the extent to which childcare is heavily subsidized in Iceland and parental leave laws are far ahead of any country. Upon the birth of a child, both parents are allowed to take three months out of work, followed by another three months that can be divided and used by either parent. With these policies in effect, it’s no wonder that 88% of Icelandic women are in the workforce—the highest number of any country in the world.

The case of gender equality in Iceland highlights two important sociological themes. First, it demonstrates that when people join together and engage in collective action, social change occurs. Women in Iceland are not at the forefront of global gender equality because the men in power wanted to relinquish their political and economic advantages. Just like the struggle for civil rights in the United States or any other country, the chains of inequality are only broken when people struggle for greater justice. In the famous words of Frederick Douglas: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Second, Iceland’s progress toward greater gender equality illustrates the importance of social structure in shaping our attitudes and actions. Once women’s voices were heard, and social and political policies were established to lessen the existing inequalities, Icelandic women and men started arranging their lives differently. If your job allows you three (or six) months off, or if there is a highchair in the men’s locker room, you are much more equipped to act in ways that reflect gender equality. To put this in sociological terms: The ability (or agency) of men to share in child care and women to be in the workforce is greatly facilitated when the resources (or social structures) exist to allow those behaviors to occur.

There is one more interesting point to consider about gender equality in Iceland. A recent sociological study by Daniel Carlson suggests that when men help their spouses with child care they are more likely to enjoy better relationships (and have better sex lives). This research may help us understand why Iceland, as well as the four other Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden), are all in the top 10 of the most gender equal countries in the world and in the top ten of the happiest countries in the world.

What do you think? Is the relationship between gender equality and national happiness a case of causation or correlation?  


It would be good to experience how Iceland’s society works. I live in a place where women have limitations. It would be refreshing to live somewhere you can be who you want to be and you will be supported by the people surrounding you.

A great statement; when people join together and engage in collective action, social change occurs.

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