Women in Iceland, Including PM, Strike for Equal Pay

24 October 2023

Iceland's prime minister and women across the island nation went on strike Tuesday. They are pushing for an end to unequal pay and gender-based violence.

Icelanders awoke to all-male news teams announcing shutdowns across the nation. Schools closed down, public transportation was delayed, hospitals had fewer workers, and hotel rooms went uncleaned.

Katrin Jakobsdóttir is Iceland's prime minister. She said that she would stay home as part of the women's strike and expected other women on her cabinet to do the same.

People across Iceland gather during the women's strike in Reykjavik, Iceland, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Arni Torfason)
People across Iceland gather during the women's strike in Reykjavik, Iceland, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Arni Torfason)

Iceland's trade unions are the main organizers of the strike. They called on women and nonbinary, a term to describe those who do not identify as male or female, to strike. They refused to do both paid and unpaid work, including household work, for the day. About 90 percent of Icelandic workers belong to a union.

Schools and the health system, which have large female workforces, said they would be heavily affected by the walkout. National broadcaster RUV said it was reducing television and radio broadcasts for the day.

Tuesday's walkout lasts from midnight to midnight. It is called the biggest strike since Iceland's first such event on October 24, 1975. That was when 90 percent of women refused to work, clean or look after children, to express anger at discrimination in the workplace.

In 1976, Iceland passed a law guaranteeing equal rights of men and women. Since then, there have been several partial-day strikes. The most recent one came in 2018, with women walking off the job in the early afternoon. That represented the time of day when women, on average, stop earning compared to men.

Iceland is a country of about 380,000 people. It sits just below the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic Ocean. It has been ranked as the world's most gender-equal country 14 years straight by the World Economic Forum, which measures pay, education, health care among others. No country has reached full equality, and there remains a gender pay gap in Iceland.

"We have not yet reached our goals of full gender equality and we are still tackling the gender-based wage gap, which is unacceptable in 2023," the prime minster said.

The cabinet is evenly split between male and female ministers. Nearly half of lawmakers in Iceland's parliament are women.

Many women in Iceland are in high paying and powerful positions. But the lowest paying jobs, such as cleaning and child care, are still mostly done by women.

The work is very important for Iceland's tourism economy. It also depends heavily on immigrants, who largely work longer hours and take home the lowest pay. Around 22 percent of the female workforce is foreign born, found Statistics Iceland.

Large parts of the center of the capital, Reykjavík, will be closed to traffic ahead of a protest on Tuesday afternoon. Protest signs, posted on social media before the event, hit back at the idea that Iceland is already perfect for women with the slogan, "You call this gender equality?"

Iceland's 1975 strike led to similar protests in other countries including Poland. There, women boycotted jobs and classes in 2016 to protest a proposed abortion ban.

In Spain, women struck for 24 hours in 2018. The country's major unions estimated that 5.3 million people joined the strike.

Spain's Equality Minister Irene Montero said Tuesday that the 2018 strike was inspired by Iceland's 1975 walkout. She expressed full support for the latest protest.

I'm Gena Bennett.

Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.


Words in This Story

gender — n. a person's own sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female

union — n. an organization of workers formed to protect the rights and interests of its members

nonbinary — n. not identifying as male or female

gap — n. a space between two people or things

tackle — v. to deal with

tourism — n. the activity of traveling to a place for pleasure

slogan — n. a word or phrase that is easy to remember and is used by a group or business to attract attention

inspire — v. to give an idea about what to do or create