An Equal Difference: Introduction
One sunny London morning in September 2008, I was having breakfast in a café across from my office in Shoreditch. The gang from the Financial Times office around the corner came in looking deflated and explained that Lehman Brothers had just crashed and that a lot more people would lose their jobs. It was a grim day for the world, and soon recession was spreading across the globe.
Shortly after, I read in the UK papers that Icelanders were proposing to feminise their banking system in response to the problems that led directly to the collapse of their three main banks. I was intrigued. How does one feminise a banking system? I’d never heard it put that way before.
It is important to acknowledge that both women and men were analysing the behaviour of the bankers, not blaming men specifically. Icelanders believed the problems were caused by untempered hyper-masculine behaviours, such as aggression, competitiveness, risk-taking and a lack of emotional awareness. Feminine qualities, such as risk-aversion, openness, emotional awareness and empathy might have averted the disaster. They were not saying that men are the problem and women are the solution – both sexes exhibit masculine and feminine behaviours and can exhibit imbalances of either as encouraged or discouraged by a culture’s gender construct. But the fact remains that banking culture in Iceland, like elsewhere, is overwhelmingly masculine. This balance of behaviours and qualities affects not only the world of banking and finance, but the world at large.
Intrigued by the Icelanders’ response, I wanted to know more about their mindset. Life events prevented me from getting to Iceland for five years, but in that time I began to follow Icelandic news. This was the period between 2008 and 2013, following the collapse of the Icelandic banks, which saw the electorate put pressure on the government, led at the time by Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn (the Independence Party). There were weekly protests in front of the Alþing (parliament), and the government finally collapsed in January 2009.
After the election, the Left-Green Movement and the Social Democratic Alliance formed a coalition government headed by Iceland’s first female and openly gay prime minister. Women took 52 percent of the seats in parliament. During this period Iceland abolished its strip clubs and, like Sweden, criminalised those who pay for sex rather than those who sell it. The government let the banks go bust rather than bail them out at taxpayers’ expense. It imposed capital controls on outflows and it used fiscal transfers to protect the bottom half of the population from disproportionate cuts. A committee was formed to investigate the processes that led to the collapse of the banks, though it would be two years before they delivered their report and longer still before anyone faced consequences for their actions. But unlike in other countries hit by the financial crisis, they did face consequences. Why did Iceland hold bankers responsible when the rest of the world did not?
I wanted to know about the kind of society Iceland had cultivated and- what its outlooks were. How did women and men see each other and themselves? What was their character like compared to other countries I had lived in? Were women more confident, men more open-minded, children better cared for? Was life there, in any way, more balanced?
I suspected I would find enlightened ideas that benefit society, not just business, although I found that the two weren’t mutually exclusive. I spoke to innovators across genders in education, health, industry, science and the arts whose ideas exceeded my imagination.
We spent our time together making pictures and discussing whatever we naturally gravitated towards. Our conversations were casual and framed by our interests – there were no pre-planned questions. At some point the subject of gender equality would surface, and we spoke about our experiences and understanding of it and how it was reflected or not in Iceland and the world. Through these conversations I began to learn about Icelandic society and gain a clearer picture about its outlooks. We explored how society’s successes and failures can shape and support lives. We also laughed a lot, sometimes to the point of tears.
I discovered that like many of its Nordic counterparts, Iceland provides social structures that are more supportive of families and the formation of healthier, happier individuals. Iceland provides prenatal, postnatal and birth support for mothers, who biologically bear more responsibility for the early life of a child. There is flexible parental leave for both mothers and fathers. There are also subsidised nurseries and kindergartens for babies and children. Education is compulsory and free at public schools until the age of sixteen. Anyone who has completed compulsory education can attend the Icelandic version of secondary school, usually until they are twenty. Third-level education can be expensive, depending on the course of study, and many students opt to attend universities abroad, in countries like Denmark and Sweden. The public health system does not rely on costly private insurance for funding, and patients are not presented with a litany of forms to fill out before they can access care. However, the system is currently suffering because of government-imposed budget cuts.
Icelandic society distinguishes between a person’s identity as a parent and as an individual and takes measures to ensure fathers are equally included in the family unit, especially in regard to early childcare. This gives families a better opportunity to bond, and children enjoy greater freedom, so they become more independent from an earlier age. They are not forced to go without essential time with their family because of their parents’ work. People are given incentives and opportunities to actualise themselves through education, and they can have children if they choose to, without having to sacrifice one or the other.
Iceland’s culture revolves around family, and children are always included. It isn’t unusual to see a mother breastfeeding at a university lecture or a father pushing a pram in the middle of the day. Drug use among Icelandic adolescents is the lowest in Europe, thanks in part to the success of the Icelandic Model, which tackles teenage substance abuse.
The natural environment also influences the Icelandic character. Icelanders are known for their reluctance to plan ahead but also for their readiness to take action. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that everyone in Iceland is at the mercy of the ever-changing and unpredictable weather, which can be vicious. There are times when you simply cannot go outside or drive anywhere. Something bigger than you intervenes and you learn to respect it. Iceland has the most bipolar weather I have ever experienced. They have a saying: “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes.”
The weather influences mood, and many people experience depression in the dark winters and increased energy in the light-filled summers. This seems to increase empathy, which makes for a more mood-sensitive culture with greater compassion and tolerance. Learning to be resilient as the light and weather shift so dramatically is a powerful lesson for the human psyche.
Icelandic society is proactively striving for gender equality, which sits at the centre of progress, and there are policies in place to promote gender equality in all spheres of society. Many stepping stones have led to the current gender equality legislation, including the use of gender quotas. As proven by the need for affirmative action policies in the USA, we are not yet evolved enough to choose fairly of our own volition.
The minister for welfare is in charge of implementing Icelandic gender equality legislation, and the Centre for Gender Equality (Jafnréttisstofa) is responsible for its administration. The minister also appoints the Gender Equality Council and the Complaints Committee on Gender Equality. Each of these groups operate independently of each other, all working towards a situation where policy and decision-making are influenced equally by women and men. It makes sense that a gender-balanced governing body, comprising people who are themselves encouraged to be more balanced individuals, would make decisions that benefit everyone.
Iceland is top of a lot of lists, for the reasons listed above and some we haven’t even skimmed the surface of. The country was ranked No. 1 on the Global Gender Gap Index 2015, a position it has held since 2009. The index examines inequality between women and men in 145 countries in the areas of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival.
These statistics have been reported in the media in ways that give outsiders the impression that Iceland is some kind of utopia. This is not the case. If you look only at the numbers and don’t interpret the data, you miss the bigger picture. In 2015 Iceland scored 105 out of 145 in the health and survival sub-index. What does that reveal? Perhaps it is related to the fact that Iceland recently outranked the US in adult obesity (67.1 percent of Icelandic adults are overweight or obese compared to 66.3 percent of US adults). Transparency International also recently ranked Iceland the most corrupt country in the Nordics – more corrupt than the United Kingdom but less than the United States. Statistics are just indicators that should prompt further investigation and analysis.
Despite Iceland’s top Global Gender Gap Index score, inequality exists and takes its most measurable form in the wage gap. Equality remains a destination we have yet to arrive at. When it comes to sexism, Icelanders experience similar frustrations as people in other cultures, and the same rigid gender definitions apply, even if Icelandic culture feels more open-minded. But is it? I have heard so many people express this opinion and I have come to hold it myself. But maybe that’s because as a foreigner I am only standing at the mouth of the beast. Though sexual harassment and its uglier derivatives are present, the culture is not as given to violence, and the incarceration rate (just 45 per 100,000) is twenty times less than in the USA (900 per 100,000).
Equality is not about men and women. It is about balance, inside a person first, and between people second. Masculine and feminine energies – or behaviours if you are more scientifically minded – are in all of us. Equality offers the best chance any individual or society has of reaching their potential. Anything less than equality is oppression, which takes energy to maintain. The most enlightened ideas come from the most liberated minds, which are free to see and make connections in a way that a mind burdened by a need to conform is not.
We each give up a part of our humanity to systematically repress “incongruent” traits so we can better fit our culture’s idea of gender. I have come to view misogyny and misandry as reactions to traits one dislikes in oneself. These traits are rejected, repressed and projected onto others as hatred. The energy spent on repression would be better directed towards being all we can be. The social construction of gender is an outmoded, antiquated system no longer essential to our survival. In fact it may be standing in the way of it. How can we be at peace in the world when we are at war with ourselves?
Human beings will always be subject to human problems, and despite what Iceland has achieved for itself, it is inhabited by humans and affected by their issues. The Icelandic Sagas recount perennial stories of the human condition – love, hate, honour, war, crime and punishment, journey and exile – and are as relevant today as ever. They have even given rise to popular culture although you may be unaware of it. J. R. R. Tolkien took inspiration for The Lord of the Rings from the Prose Edda, one of the greatest works of Nordic literature, which came from their oral tradition and was written down a century after the close of the Viking era. If we choose to, we can use our humanity to create conditions that are more conducive to our growth. I have seen some of those conditions in Iceland.