Turns out few things work when women aren’t working.
Forty eight years ago, women in Iceland took the day off. Those of us who were around then remember October 24, 1975 as the day the country shut down. Government offices, businesses, and service providers either closed or operated below capacity. Households were in disarray. Grocery stores sold out of hot dogs because, suddenly, dinner duty fell to fathers.
It wasn’t a “spa day for the ladies,” though. The women of Iceland went on strike for gender equality. In an extraordinary show of courage and common purpose known as “Women's Day Off” (Kvennafrí in Icelandic), 90% of women in the country marched together. They showed up to march and say, in essence, the future is this way.
I was seven at the time and so proud when my mother and aunts told me they took the day off to show that they matter. Like girls and boys everywhere, I wanted to matter, too.
The strike of 1975 shifted minds and catalyzed change. Iceland’s parliament passed a law guaranteeing equal pay the next year. In 1980, Iceland elected the world’s first female president. Three years later, Icelandic women founded the first all-female political party, which successfully applied pressure on other parties to support gender parity and issues important to families and working women. Progress followed, including wins for accessible childcare, equal maternity, and paternity leave and gender quotas for corporate boardrooms.
These days, Iceland enjoys economic and social progress like few others. The World Economic Forum has ranked Iceland atop its Global Gender Gap Index for 14 years running. We’ve earned our reputation as the best place in the world to be a woman. And yet.
And yet, women in Iceland would tell you, “the best” is far from perfect. The gender pay gap remains stubbornly in place. Women disproportionately bear the unpaid (or underpaid) burden of housework and caring for loved ones. Two in five women suffer violence at some point in their lives.
While it’s important to celebrate victories, it’s just as important to get organized and get loud if progress is delayed. So we came together again this October 24th, when more than 100,000 women, nonbinary people and male allies across Iceland took the day off to strike for gender equality. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and members of her cabinet joined in.
I won’t soon forget the strength and pulsing energy of nearly one-third of our nation, calling for courage in closing Iceland’s 21% wage gap and ending gender-based abuse. I also sensed a deeper awareness emerging in the crowd that day—a shared recognition that gender equality is more than an aspiration; more than a goal for governments, workplaces, communities and households; more than a lever of political, economic and social change.
Gender equality will always be the “right” thing to pursue, but this, too, misses the bigger point. Gender equality and more women in leadership are essential tools for securing a livable world.
A livable world depends on a healthy planet, which is increasingly at risk from climate breakdown and biodiversity loss. A livable world is a peaceful world, yet today wars rage and children are dying and suffering in the Middle East, Ukraine, Sudan, and elsewhere. If it seems to you like the world’s unwell, please know you’re not alone.
The key to overcoming humanity’s present and looming dangers, believes Iceland’s former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, is clear: “If the world can be saved, it will be by women—with the help and friendship of men.”
I agree with Madam Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and mounting evidence supports her claim. When women participate in formal peace processes, peace lasts longer. More women in leadership positively correlates to CO2 emissions reductions and more ambitious measures to protect life on Earth. Countries with a higher representation of women in political and economic leadership positions tend to have more equitable healthcare systems, improving overall health outcomes. The list goes on.
It’s difficult then, in the context of an increasingly unlivable world, to accept the staggering gender imbalances at the most powerful decision making tables. Men serve as heads of government of more than 9 in 10 U.N. member states. Nearly 95% of Fortune Global 500 CEOs are men. Despite the fact that climate breakdown disproportionately harms women and girls, men made up two-thirds of country negotiating teams at COP27, last year’s U.N. climate summit in Egypt.
It’s a frustrating reality for equality advocates, but it’s vital we embrace that last part of Madam Finnbogadóttir’s prognosis: “…with the help and friendship of men.” We are living in an all-hands-on-deck moment that demands collaboration by leaders of every gender. To secure a livable world, women and nonbinary leaders, in solidarity with their male allies, must work together to redefine leadership paradigms; dismantle structural barriers; and move beyond violent, extractive and oppressive policies and behaviors toward sustainable, people-first approaches.
We all stand to benefit from gender equality gains, and the women of Iceland have demonstrated that courageous, consistent and collective pressure can get us there. If we want a livable world for all—if we want to ensure safety and opportunity for our children, grandchildren and future generations—we must advocate for more women to lead the way in countries, communities, and workplaces everywhere.
Look to Iceland as proof of concept. Women leaders hold the key to a livable world.
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