The Korea Herald


[Lilja Dogg Alfredsdottir] How to close the gender wage gap

By Korea Herald

Published : May 14, 2024 - 05:31

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Last year, a 24-hour women’s strike was organized to protest the country’s gender pay gap and gender-based violence. Thousands gathered in central Reykjavik to demonstrate their solidarity.

For the 14th year running, Iceland (91.2 percent) takes the top position in the Global Gender Gap Report 2023. It also continues to be the only country to have closed more than 90 percent of its gender gap. The Economist’s glass-ceiling index rates Iceland as the best place in the world for women in the workforce. Nevertheless, Icelanders firmly believe that any wage gap is too large.

In her Nobel Prize-winning research, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin offers crucial insight into the factors that shape women’s labor market outcomes. For starters, she shows that changing expectations played a major role in narrowing the wage gap with men in the United States in the twentieth century. Between 1967 and 1989, the share of young women expecting to be employed at age 35 skyrocketed from 33 percent to 80 percent.

Birth control helped considerably. By making it possible to delay marriage and child-rearing, artificial contraception enabled women to devote themselves more fully to university education, envisage an independent future, and formulate their self-image before starting a family. As Goldin has observed, if a young woman has more control over when and whether she has a child, and if she expects to have access to a variety of career opportunities, she will invest more in her own future.

But progress eventually stalled; in 2022, women in the US were earning an average of 82 cents for each dollar earned by men, and the gender wage gap among Americans with advanced degrees has remained broadly unchanged since 2005. In her 2021 book, "Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey toward Equity," Goldin offers an explanation.

Long-term data show that, during the first years of their careers, male and female university graduates in the US earn strikingly similar incomes, and whatever gap exists can be attributed mostly to differences in their chosen fields of study and employment. Within a given field, women and men begin at virtually the same base pay and have very similar opportunities. It is only later in life -- around ten years after entering the workforce -- that a significant pay gap emerges, and women with at least two children do notably worse than their counterparts with one child or none. A major reason why, Goldin argues, is that progressing into higher-paying roles often requires significant overtime work and uncertainty -- a difficult proposition for mothers of multiple children.

Fortunately, Iceland’s experience can offer important lessons on how to narrow the gender-based gap. Last year’s strike was not Iceland’s first by women. In 1975, some 90 percent of Icelandic women participated in a similar strike -- which was considered an extremely radical move at the time -- to demonstrate just how vital they were to the country’s functioning.

In the half-century since then, Iceland has taken great strides toward equality, and we younger women can thank our mothers and grandmothers for blazing the trail. In fact, it was Iceland’s decades-long equal-rights movement that impelled the government to adopt policy measures that vastly improved women’s career prospects.

The first such measure was substantial investment in government-subsidized preschool education. Most families in Iceland can count on being able to enroll their child in a quality preschool by the age of two, at an out-of-pocket cost of around $200 per month.

Second, Iceland instituted 12 months of paid childbirth leave (amounting to 80 percent of the average total wage), which is shared equally between the child’s parents. This policy has been vital to removing the barrier to hiring young women, as it ensures that new mothers will be outside the labor market for as long as new fathers. Representing the genders as equal also ensures that strong role models are a part of the household.

Third, legislation was adopted to require companies listed on the Icelandic stock exchange (with at least 50 employees) to ensure that their boards of directors include at least 40 percent women. Since the quota was introduced in 2010, the share of women on company boards has increased markedly.

Nonetheless, Iceland has still not fully eliminated the gender pay gap. In 2019, the adjusted gap was 4.3 percent. In other words, if men and women held the same jobs in the same sectors, women would be paid, on average, 4.3 percent less than men, simply because of their gender. Moreover, whereas being married or having a partner has a positive impact on men’s pay in Iceland, it does not affect women’s pay. The number of children under the age of two in the household has no statistically significant impact on women’s pay and has only a marginal (downward) effect on men’s. Women are also much more likely to take the “third shift” at home, which includes cooking and cleaning, and they experience far more gender-based violence. It is these enduring inequities that prompted Icelandic women to strike again last year.

This is a cause everyone should get behind. As the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill pointed out, the subordination of women is not only “wrong in itself”; it is also “one of the chief hindrances to human improvement.” Denying women the same opportunities as men not only impedes the development of roughly half the population but also denies society the benefit of their talents. That is why we cannot rest until true gender parity has been achieved. We must strive for genuine gender equality, and once attained, we must be vigilant in maintaining it.

Lilja Dogg Alfredsdottir

Lilja Dogg Alfredsdottir is the minister of culture and business affairs of Iceland. The views expressed here are the writer's own. -- Ed.

(Project Syndicate)