EY highlights lessons learnt from Iceland in leading gender parity

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Learning from the world’s most gender-equal country

Learning from the world’s most gender-equal country

Iceland is leading the way for gender parity. EY encourages further countries and organizations to learn how they can follow Iceland's lead and press for progress.

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir made history in 1980 when she became the first woman to be elected head of state in a national election. Almost 40 years have passed and today there are fewer than 20 female heads of state globally - out of the nearly 190 countries the United Nations recognizes. In the 21st century, there should be no debate that giving women the same opportunities as men is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, too. The  DDI Global Leadership Forecast 2018 found that increasing gender diversity correlates directly with stronger growth and more effective leadership. Similarly, as a 2016 EY-sponsored study by The Petersen Institute for International Economics found, organizations with 30%  female leaders could add up to 6 percentage points to their net margins.

So it’s in the interest of everyone to build a strong pipeline of future women leaders in business, government and society. But that can only be achieved if systemic obstacles to gender parity are removed.

An unequal reality

Unfortunately, statutory barriers that discriminate against women are still an appalling reality. There are 100 economies around the world that still have gender-based job restrictions including France (operating a crane to unload freight), Argentina (working with explosives) and Russia (driving an agricultural truck). Iceland is the first nation to adopt an equality clause in its constitution or legal framework, prohibiting discrimination on the basis for gender for employment, owning assets, having an identity, being able to vote, etc. But a 7% pay gap still exists. When will Iceland achieve full gender parity? And when will other nations follow?

We need more than quotas

Quotas and targets are in place in 40% of countries to help accelerate changes, but some companies are using “circumvention strategies,” i.e., complying with the requirements but not seeking to make real changes. This kind of tokenism delays the benefits of an inclusive growth, which is, ultimately, what companies, governments and individuals really need to pursue. Norway’s decade of quotas for women on boards shows there are more women in corporate leadership roles now than when the quotas were put into place, despite a number of companies using circumvention strategies when the legislation was first introduced. How can we support these positive actions and fight against limiting ones?

Tackling the wage gap

Would you knowingly work for free or for less money than your peers? According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017, wage gaps still exist in every nation around the world for paid work in every profession or role. Women still do the majority of tasks in caring for children and elder relatives and in domestic activities, which averages around 20 hours a week. That’s the same as a part time job - a job that isn’t paid. Just as women are redefining their roles – becoming senior executives, entrepreneurs, senior politicians – so too must men redefine what their roles will be. The traditional views of men working outside the home and women working inside the home are changing. In countries with the highest levels of gender parity, like Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, men share equally in domestic chores and care responsibilities, while in other countries we see men speaking out in support of changing how to view men’s roles.


The media is increasingly recognizing its vital role to change the status quo. New digital media channels have the power to shape the global narrative. Media organizations need to consider their role in increasing gender equality. They should ask themselves how can advertising and entertainment groups help to change unconscious bias? How are we embracing the power of these innovations to accelerate gender parity rather than widening the gap?

As I observe the progress Iceland has made to achieve its status, it reinforced my belief that we need to acknowledge that the world today is a much better place for women that it was 50 or even five years ago. We’re going in the right direction but need to accelerate. A well-known news and current affairs magazine last month said that progress in breaking the glass ceiling has been slow but steady. I would argue that progress has been steady but too slow. We need more women advancing in their organizations to leadership levels to achieve the critical mass needed to affect real change.

To accelerate the pace of change, here’s what you could be doing within your organization right now:

  1. maintain a gender parity mindset - make sure your aware of any gender gaps by demanding that your organization or industry measures them and publishes the results
  2. challenge stereotypes and bias wherever you see them
  3. celebrate women’s achievements
  4. sponsor or mentor a woman for a new role or assignment

None of the initiatives above are new, but that doesn’t stop them being relevant and necessary. There’s no time for complacency. We need to recognize that it’s time to refocus on persistent inequality. The road ahead is long and we need to tirelessly #PressForProgress.

Discover more about Iceland's journey to becoming the world’s most gender-equal country:

There’s no time for complacency. We need to recognize that it’s time to refocus on persistent gender inequality, and press for progress.


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Disclosure: Where Women Work researches and publishes insightful evidence about how its paid member organizations support women's equality.

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