Equal pay for Iceland: everything you need to know



Women and minorities have come a long way in terms of equal rights over the past few decades, but there are still some big problems. One of these is the pay gap.  Although the pay gap exists all around the world, some places have it better than others. Take Iceland, for example.  In keeping with their reputation for social progressivism, the country is now planning to enforce pay equality on the bases of gender, ethnicity, nationality, and sexual orientation.  In essence, it will force all companies with 25 or more employees to prove they are paying everyone equally regardless of their status in those groups.

The law, which has yet to be passed, is part of the government’s plan to eliminate the gender pay gap within the next five years.  It’s a tall order, but reducing pay inequality is essential for true equality, so any step towards that end is necessary and crucial . Of course, part of the problem with the pay gap is that different people are culturally pushed or restricted to different professions, and the ones that women and minorities are pushed towards just so happen to pay less on average. This law won’t change that.

Still, given that the pay gap still persists when you control for all the frequently-mentioned factors, including differing career paths, this legislation will still be a major advancement. Not only that, but by writing into law the understanding that everyone’s labour is of equal value, they set the stage for further advancements in equality.

In this case, the commitment to equality is especially evident because of the inclusion of nationality, ethnicity, and sexuality in the law.  Although in Canada and the United States we often cite figures in terms of how much women make as opposed to men, these figures often ignore race and sexual orientation.  According to Pew Research, white women in America made about 83 per cent as much as white men in 2015, but when we bring race into the equation, the pay gap becomes even more drastic.  For example, Hispanic women make 58 per cent of what white men do, and Hispanic men make 69 per cent – far less than white women.

Iceland Wage Gap Law

Another study in Canada found that sexual orientation also has an impact on pay.  The study, which focused on white married couples, found that gay men make slightly less than straight men, while lesbians make less than gay men but more than straight women.  Like with the gender pay gap, there are several factors at play there, but it is still a significant difference, which is why it’s so important that the proposed Icelandic law will include sexuality, along with ethnicity and nationality.

So although there’s no question as to whether this law would do good by Icelanders, it is important to think about why they are able to put forward legislation like this and have it taken seriously.  In fact, activists have worked hard to make Iceland as progressive as it is, and given the current political climate, their political engagement should serve as an example.

For example, last year, Icelandic women staged a walkout in protest of unequal pay, leaving work at exactly 2:38 PM to point out the proportions of pay inequality (in earlier years, they left work earlier because the pay gap was wider).  Iceland also beat America to the Day Without a Woman by over 40 years, with a one-day strike in 1975 where 90 percent of women in the country took the day off from both their day jobs and the household labour they do that can often be taken for granted.

Iceland Wage Gap Law

It is this kind of history of workers’ action taken by women that has set the stage for the current law, which will finally codify and enforce pay equality.  And it’s that same tradition that could propel further progress in Iceland to reduce other aspects of the pay gap, such as cultural pressures and institutional factors pushing people into less lucrative careers.

Fortunately, it seems like America and other parts of the world are starting to follow Iceland’s example, with the past few years bringing us the Black Lives Matter movement, the Standing Rock protests, and the Women’s March and Day Without a Woman all bringing together massive numbers of people to assert themselves and their rights.  With the current political climate, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.  But this kind of political mobilization can build the momentum necessary to effect real change – or, in the case of the current American administration, retain the rights that previous activists have won.

So although the governments of the world should be learning from this legislative effort by Iceland, we should also try to understand how their history of political action made it possible.  Sadly, equal rights are rarely handed down out of pure benevolence by the people with the power to give them.  They come as a result of pressure from everyday people who have decided to take action.

This success in Iceland should ultimately teach us the benefits of creating a culture in which we are willing to protest for equality and show the right people the impact we can have as individuals and as a collective.  The recent activism that’s been going on is a sign that we’re on the right track, but the only way to get to Iceland’s level is to keep the momentum and pressure up as long as necessary.