One morning of October 2008, the Icelandic citizenship abruptly woke up from a decade of neo-liberal anaesthesia, listening in the news that their country was in bankruptcy. In this new life, they started organizing, trying to understand, asking for measures… and looking around in search to qualified persons to trust. This is how Johanna Sigurðardóttir definitely jumped to worldwide fame. In March 2009 she was elected, and acclaimed, Prime Minister.
Her answers show that she is undoubtedly committed to welfare state and to gender equality.
Regarding parental leave, the Icelandic system is well known as the most advanced in the World because men have the largest non-transferable proportion (3 months out of nine); men widely use their part; and the whole population is very happy about it. But still, men take their 3 months and women take the rest (6 months), which makes that women dedicate twice the time that men do. The Prime Minister is aware of this imbalance and thinks that it is possible a reform for equal, non-transferable and fully paid parental leave, as PLENT proposes. However, she also tells us that such a reform requires more debate in Iceland. Of course, this is why the PLENT exists!
Thanks very much to the Prime Minister, Johanna Sigurðardóttir, and to all Icelandic PLENT-ers who made this interview possible. Good luck in fighting for this reform. You have all PLENT-ers of the world as your supporters!
Interview to Johanna Sigurðardóttir, by María Pazos Morán .- Originally published at El Pais (please cite source)
Question: In Spain, when talking about the political and financial measures you (Icelanders) were able to take after the financial crash (all that we envy so much)… many people often say: “Ah, yeah, but it’s different there; they are just a few and it is very cold”. What really makes the difference? Is the Icelandic way ‘exportable’?
JS: In Iceland the infrastructure is strong and we have rich natural resources. Because of them we have been able to rest assured that our problems are temporary. Economists have claimed that the crash here in Iceland is one of the most severe that a nation has had to deal with in recent times. Therefore it was clear to everybody, almost without exception, that radical measures in the finances of the state and of the municipalities were needed. To this scenario we can add the heavy burden of debt that endangered homes of ordinary people and businesses.
My government has plunged into dealing with these challenges. In spite of a lot of debate, our efforts have been supported by the majority of the population. Over two years time we have restored the banks, lowered interest rates, brought inflation down from over 18% to 4% and lowered the treasury deficit from 9% of GDP to just over 3%. Simultaneously we have had to restructure and sanitize the debt of companies and homes. The protection of our welfare system has been at the core of our actions. As a society we have strived to learn from the crisis. The economy is growing again, unemployment is going down. The social partners together with the government recently entered into new collective agreements for the next three years that will secure stability and give substantial results for wage earners. We are therefore confident that we have paved the way for real improvement in the overall economy in the coming years.
Question: And what about progress in gender equality? Iceland has been ranked as the most gender egalitarian country by the World Economic Forum in 2009 and 2010. Congratulations! And just before that, you were ranked 4th in 2007 and 2008. What are the factors explaining this good previous rankings and the amazing progress in the last two ranked years, 2009 and 2010?
JS: The previous rankings in 2007 and 2008 placed Iceland solidly in the top section of the list together with most other Nordic countries. Advancements in political representation of women in the parliament and in ministerial positions in the last few years and the fact that we have a female head of government played a significant role in the placement of Iceland as no. 1 in the last two years. Even though we are quite pleased with this ranking, it clearly reveals where we can move forward still – and that is on the labour market. The female representation in managerial positions and the gendered wage gap are problem areas where we need to make progress. Last year, the Althingi passed a law on gender quotas in boards of both private and public companies that will be enacted in 2013. It is my hope that it will result in an even higher score in the WEF ranking after 2013.
Question: Isn’t it remarkable that women gained more power just after the crisis? Is this also a crash of masculine values?
JS: Yes, definitely. In the years preceding the crash, the financial sector was way off limits in taking immense risks, accumulating debt, gambling could even be the right term. This was a culture of mostly young men where women were almost totally absent. But many other players joined in hyping up the culture around the financial sector and attributing qualities to the leaders that were closely linked to stereotypical notions of masculinity. Research has shown that where women and men are more equally represented in the leadership of the economic life, decisions tend to be better balanced and more sound. So, yes, we can speak about a crash of masculine values.
Question: When you arrived in power, you said that Iceland was well prepared to go out of this financial crash because you have a very highly educated population and a good economic performance… Do you think that gender equality has to do with this good situation?
JS: Yes, in many ways. The high employment activity rate of Icelandic women means that they contribute significantly to the overall economy. After all, Iceland was and still is a prosperous country where the economic activity of women has created wealth for our society as a whole. That wouldn’t be possible without a high level of gender equality in general. Even though some cuts in expenditures have been unavoidable, we have done our utmost to defend the public services where women are disproportionally employed. We have done this not only to defend women´s jobs, but also to preserve good infrastructure that provides quality of life for the whole population. The education system has been shielded, even strengthened. We even have managed to enrol many, especially those with little formal education who otherwise would have been unemployed, into further education. By this, we have been able to counteract some of the immediate negative impact of the crisis on the wellbeing of the citizens. I can also mention the widespread entrepreneurial spirit of the Icelanders, not least women, who have been very innovative and capable in creating new opportunities for themselves and for the labour market in general. And last but not least, the greater influence of women in the parliament and in the government has, I believe, led to gender sensitive and overall better decisions.
Question: As you said, It still remains a high gender pay gap in Iceland….
JS: That´s true, unfortunately. The gap is narrowing, interestingly at a much quicker pace since the crash, but it is still intolerable. In short, men tend to benefit more from economic upswings and lose more in recessions than women, at least here in Iceland. The gendered labour market is characterized by some structural differences that constantly produce and reproduce the gendered wage gap. Surveys indicate that the gendered pay gap is much less within companies than between them, which could possibly explain why we have almost no cases of pay discrimination before the courts. My government is looking into how we can address this more successfully than up till now. It is quite imperative that the economic upswing that is ahead of us will not result in a growing wage gap yet again.
Question: But with high full-time female employment rates, long working hours, high fertility rates, kindergartens starting when children are two years old, and men not doing a lot of housework… Don’t you think that working class women cannot do it all (housework and employment) at the same time and have the same results as if they had to do only their jobs (as it is the case for many men)? (In Spain we say: you cannot ring the bell and be in the procession at the same time….)
JS: The unequal distribution of family responsibilities has for a long time been one of the most difficult barriers for women to overcome. But men are, in general, increasing their share of domestic work and care. Recent Icelandic research, published this year, shows that Icelandic men now do about 40% of the household chores, care of children included. This is a milestone achievement and tells us how much men have stepped up in the last few years. One of the aims of our parental leave scheme was of course to encourage men to increase their share of domestic responsibilities and care and we are moving in the right direction. The significance of this should not be underestimated.
Question: The reform of the parental leave system, which was put in place since 2001 in Iceland, is well known as the most advanced in the World because men have the largest non-transferable proportion (3 months out of nine); and it is widely used by men and highly supported by the whole population. But still, men take their 3 months and women take the rest (6 months). Do you think this distribution could be improved? How do you see the future of the parental leave system in Iceland?
JS: This can be improved. Our long term goal is to make two systems meet, the parental leave and our day care system for children. That system is a major contributor to the level of gender equality in Iceland. We have a public system, run by the municipalities, that is accessible for all and affordable. It is also of high quality, employing well educated professionals. Now there is a time gap that is dealt with by many parents by mothers extending their maternity leave, either unpaid or by extending their leave at a lower payment. I think this has an impact on the distribution of the parental leave between the parents. It is my firm believe that when we have extended the parental leave up till 12 months, and children can be admitted to the day care centres from that age, we will see a more equal distribution. But then we will also need to consider if the non-transferrable right of each parent should be extended proportionally or if the right should be fully individual, that is six non-transferrable months to each parent. The idea of non-transferrable four months to each parent and four months to share has already been introduced and is receiving a lot of support from the population.
Question: At PLENT , we dream of one day, not too far, in which Iceland will have passed a reform for equal, non-transferable and fully-paid parental leave for all parents of born or adopted children, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or kind of family. And then, the dream continues… as you will have already joined the EU by that day, you make the European Parliament adopt a Directive in that sense. Don’t you think that this would be a real challenge to the sexual division of work all over the world? Are we dreaming of too much?
JS: The two components of your vision of the future of the parental leave in Iceland, that aren´t already in place, is that the leave be fully paid and totally individualized. One of the most painful cuts we had to do was lowering the level of maximum payments since the financial crash, but we regard that as a temporary measure that will be put right when the economy allows. The other issue about abolishing all flexibility in the parental leave system by making the right of parents totally non-transferrable requires more debate in Iceland. Your other vision about Iceland pushing for a European directive is not at all unrealistic since Iceland is already an applicant country to the EU and gender equality is a priority issue in our foreign policy in general. So, pushing for more gender equality within the EU, after we have joined, is to be expected, I am happy to say.
Question: Do you see ahead a free society, where women and men are free of domination and all persons can live in total equality? Can we all women say “Minn tími mun koma!”? (“Mi tiempo va a llegar!”)?
JS: I am in politics because I believe that progress can be made and that the struggles of the underprivileged and of the minorities are moving our communities forward. We now see, all over the world, the struggles of people for enjoying the full scope of human rights gain momentum. And, as we know, the potential of every individual to empower themselves is likewise amazing. That is very gratifying to witness and gives great hope for the future.