Gender protest in world’s most gender-equal nation

The pay-gap protest in Iceland shows the long struggle ahead


Women came together at Austurvöllur square in Reykjavik on 24 October to fight for pay equality. Photo courtesy: Salka Sól Eyfeld@Twitter
Women came together at Austurvöllur square in Reykjavik on 24 October to fight for pay equality. Photo courtesy: Salka Sól Eyfeld@Twitter

A recent study by London-based business-to-business marketplace Expert Market found that women in Iceland earn 14% less than their male colleagues for the same work, with the same qualifications. As the clock struck 2.38pm on 24 October, thousands of women in that country left their workplace and went straight to Austurvöllur square, in the capital city of Reykjavik. They spent exactly 14% less time at work, assembled at Austurvöllur against the discrimination and shouted Ut (Out). 

What’s striking about the protest is that Iceland is arguably the world’s most gender-equal nation. Over the past eight years, it has been the leader in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) annual Global Gender Gap ranking, which quantifies disparities in health, politics, education and employment among women and men. The same country gave the world its first democratically elected woman president in 1980; its parental laws make it easy for a woman to return to work after having a child. 

If we shift our focus to India, the gap widens to 27%. A May report by recruiting website Monster India suggests that across sectors, men earn a gross hourly salary of Rs288.68, while women get Rs207.85. The reasons cited: preference for male employees, preference for promotion of male employees to supervisory positions, and career breaks for women due to parenthood. In terms of gender equality, India ranks 87th out of 144 countries, according to the “2016 Global Gender Gap Report” released on 26 October. When it comes to wage equality, it stands at the 103rd spot. WEF says it will take another 170 years to close the gender wage gap around the world. 

Are the age-old gender biases the only reasons for this disparity? We asked five women across sectors to share their views and suggest some solutions to narrow, if not close, the gap. Edited excerpts from their interviews:

Anuradha Das Mathur

Founding dean, The Vedica Scholars Programme for Women

The reasons for the gap are similar across the world—fewer women in senior, decision-making positions, conventional mindsets about women’s desire to work, women’s desire to negotiate, and, of course, societal demands for childcare, eldercare and domestic chores. 

The conversation has to change to include “women as assets”, rather than just “women as victims”, if the gender wage gap is to find a place on the policymaker’s radar. 

The solutions can start from anywhere but we first need to know the facts. A national-level study to uncover some of the trends is a necessary starting point. Organizations, meanwhile, can make a start by assessing how they score on equal-pay-for-equal-work. And avoid the “unconscious biases” that are prevalent everywhere. 

I believe that for sustainable solutions, the solution has to benefit both men and women—with opportunities for men to work a little bit less and for women to work a little bit more; for men to be more at home, and women to be a little less home-bound.

Ritu Dewan

Head of Centre for Gender Economics, department of economics, University
of Mumbai

In my fieldwork, I found that men sometimes refuse jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) as women are paid equal wages. The gender wage gap reflects the historical gender-based division of labour. Among the most obvious reasons for the gap are falling sex ratios, increased violence, and globalization combined with privatization. There’s a need to extend labour laws to the entire informal sector and, most importantly, include women’s groups in policymaking. 

Urvashi Butalia

Founder and chief executive officer of feminist publishing house Zubaan

India is a strange case, there are jobs in which there is no gender gap in wages but there is unconscious and conscious bias. I used to teach in a university college, I taught publishing, and although I had not done a PhD in publishing, I had loads of published work, even books, and at that stage the university recognized that if you were teaching a professional subject and you could not do a PhD in that, if you had enough published work, you would get the increments due to you as a full professor. But despite submitting all my published work, I never got it, and a much younger, less-qualified male colleague with no published work at all, or second-rate stuff, did. Similarly, in publishing, I worked for a mainstream publishing house for many years but it became pretty clear to me after a few years that there was no way I would (a) be paid as much as my male colleagues and (b) be given the opportunity to move to the top. So I opted out, and set up my own thing.

I think wages and wage gaps are a product of how much a person’s work is valued. Women’s work has no value, just take a look at how little importance is given to housework, so this is really at the root of the wage gap. 

Shaili Chopra

Author and founder of SheThePeople.TV, a video-storytelling platform for real women and real stories

The problem persists due to lack of conviction in senior managements about hiring women, and then paying them fairly. Change needs to begin at the top and organizations need to move beyond thinking of women as “safety issues, pregnancy leave, marriage”. In a world where work-from-anywhere is the norm, there’s even greater reason for the gender pay gap to narrow. 

I also think human resource departments are part of the problem. They need to stop wearing pink scarves on Women’s Day, cut down tokenism on parties where organizing committees are driven by women, having smoking rooms but not breastfeeding rooms or crèches—these realities play a big role in how organizations perceive their female talent.

Rebecca Mammen John

Senior advocate, Supreme Court 

Law is one profession where there is no fixed fee structure and lawyers are known to charge outrageously high fees, without justification. At the same time, the gap between the fee charged by seniors and mid-level or junior lawyers is huge. Within that gap, women lawyers make far less money although their work may sometimes be better than that of their male colleagues. Even top women lawyers, both in litigation and in the corporate world, will not be paid the fee that their male counterparts earn.

A possible way to bridge the gap would be to establish a benchmark to compare fees based on age, experience and other such factors. In the long run, capping the minimum and maximum fees that a category of lawyers can charge, could also be a solution

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