A Renewed Focus on Gender Equality in Iceland

By Lise Smed Olsen

The issue of gender equality has received increasing attention in assessments of the financial crisis and in initiatives to rebuild the economy of Iceland. Ambitions to ensure balanced regional development are challenged by the increasing outmigration from rural areas, especially by young women. The women do not find jobs that they find attractive, and one way for public authorities to address this issue has been by initiatives to support entrepreneurship.

The role of gender in recovery from the financial crisis

In the wake of the financial crisis, a new government took office in 2009 and introduced a renewed focus on gender equality. In January 2011, the government presented the Iceland 2020 policy statement, which presents a vision for the future of the country. It is the first strategy of its kind in Iceland and it aims to ensure more targeted and effective policy-making and planning in the public sector. All of the tasks that fall under the Iceland 2020 policy are expected to incorporate gender perspectives. A number of objectives have been set for 2020, including ambitions to reduce the gender pay gap.

A working group was appointed by the government with the task of evaluating the impact of the crisis from a gender perspective. A main conclusion was that with the onset of the crisis, in particular because of the extensive budget cuts to the public sector, more women than men became unemployed. Another study commissioned by the government is currently analysing the collapse in the banking sector from a gender perspective.

"With these analyses, the government aims to get a better understanding of the role of gender in relation to the crisis, and to ensure the inclusion of women in initiatives to restore the economy", stated Sigríður Elín Þórðardóttir of the Icelandic Regional Development Institute.

In addition, the government has ongoing initiatives to implement gender budgeting, which involves the mainstreaming of gender and equality perspectives into the budgeting process. The objective of this project is to make the impact on gender balance visible, to allow re-evaluation of policies, expenditure, and sources of revenue in accordance with the objective of gender equality. The project is currently implemented by all ministries.

Increasing outmigration of women from rural Iceland

Increasing outmigration from the rural areas to the capital area has occurred in Iceland in recent decades. Statistics show that overall more women than men live in the capital area, while the opposite is true for the rural areas. The distinction is most substantial in the 20–39 age group, for which the difference between the sexes is greatest in east Iceland with 86 women per 100 men, followed by Westfjords with 89 women per 100 men. The current regional development plan for Iceland 2010–2013 refers to the potential implications of the increasing outmigration, especially by young women:

"This is a cause for grave concern as many things indicate that women move first and then the men follow. This can lead to rural communities collapsing from within."

More women than men have higher education, which partly explains why there is a greater discrepancy between the numbers of men and women living in rural areas in the young age group, because it is young women who are most likely to move to Reykjavik or other towns offering higher education. Notably, even in the capital area there are more men than women in the young age group. This partly reflects the fact that it is common to go abroad for higher education. In this context, there may be concern over whether young people return to Iceland after finishing higher education.

One approach adopted by the Regional Development Institute to deal with the issue of young women migrating from the rural areas is to facilitate the opportunities for distance learning, which especially women have utilized. However, this does not prevent the outmigration of women from rural areas, as explained by Þórðardóttir:

"It is the ambition of the Regional Development Institute to create jobs that are attractive to both men and women in the rural areas, but women especially have problems finding jobs that match their education. There are limited opportunities for employment, and one way to deal with this issue is to start up your own business."

In addition to supporting opportunities for distance learning, the Regional Development Institute approaches the issue of outmigration of women through efforts to support entrepreneurship. Innovation Center Iceland is another public organization with measures in place to support entrepreneurship.

A service versus technology debate in the business support system

Jobs that are typically attractive for women in Iceland are in service industries, education and the health-care sector, as is the case in other countries. Innovation Center Iceland manages two public funds that allocate grants for business start-ups and early stage development. In the allocation of grants from the two funds, emphasis is placed on the extent to which the business ideas are considered innovative. A scoring system is used in the evaluation of applications, and in this system, technology and IT score higher than services in, for example, tourism and creative industries. Bjarnheiður Jóhannsdóttir from Innovation Center Iceland notes:

"Over the years, I have witnessed a political discussion of whether we should consider rural versus urban issues, or technology versus service industries, but there is no real recognition that we need to take a gender perspective in the evaluation system."

Until recently, with the introduction of gender budgets, there has been little political discussion of how the business support system could support the business ideas of men and women more equally. The gender perspective has not been truly integrated into the process of distributing public funds, but statistics have subsequently been collected to provide an overview of the distribution of funds between women and men. These numbers reveal that the majority of public funds for entrepreneurship are allocated to male applicants.

Tourism has been an important industry for the past three decades in Iceland, but a recent development is that the political focus on it has increased. To some extent, the economic crisis has had a positive impact on the industry, because the weakened Icelandic Krona has made it cheaper for international tourists to visit the country. In line with this development, the Icelandic Regional Development Institute now has more loan and grant applicants in tourism, compared with the situation a few years ago. Sigríður Elín Þórðardóttir elaborates:

"We have found that the majority of loan applicants are men with firms in fisheries and similar industries. We now have more focus on tourism, and in this way we also have more opportunities to allocate loans and grants to women, because many work in tourism."

A growing culture of women's entrepreneurship

Since 1996 when it was first started, one initiative that has had political priority because of its significant support and promotion of women's entrepreneurship is the 'Brautargengi' (Prosperity) business start-up/development course. The course targets women and is run by Innovation Center Iceland in both the capital and rural areas across the country, and today no fewer than 988 women have completed the course. An independent survey conducted in 2010 indicates that the percentage of start-ups by women who have completed the course is the same in Reykjavik as in the rural areas. Over the years, the course has become well known across the country, and it has strengthened awareness among women that starting your own business is an alternative for employment that they can consider.

Bjarnheiður Jóhannsdóttir is the Project Manager of Brautargengi and states that the course is important for developing competence and promoting entrepreneurship. She also indicates other factors that influence the entrepreneurship culture. For example, as a consequence of a crisis that was caused to a large extent by businessmen in Iceland, successful businesswomen are attracting more positive attention:

"The increasing positive media attention on successful businesswomen has an influence on the entrepreneurship culture. These women become role models, and the existence of role models is an important driver for women to start a business."

Jóhannsdóttir also refers to the significance of grass-roots movements such as Korka, which is an initiative by women entrepreneurs to strengthen networking.

"Korka has been highly influential among women in start-ups. They meet in cafes and have discussions on Facebook. The more experienced entrepreneurs offer mentoring advice. Many of the women I meet through my work have been in contact with this group, have asked for help, and are following it on Facebook."

Gender equality and the future of rural Iceland

Sigríður Elín Þórðardóttir and Bjarnheiður Jóhannsdóttir agree that in spite of progress, there is still a gap between political intention and the implementation of gender mainstreaming in practice. In this context, the gender budgeting initiative is seen as an important step in the right direction to enhance gender equality in public spending. Meanwhile, a higher proportion of women than men continue to leave the rural areas, leading to unbalanced development and worrying perspectives for the sustainability of many rural settlements. Þórðardóttir says:

"We need a clear political will that recognizes that women are drivers of regional development, and we need measures to encourage and enable the women to stay or to move back to the sparsely populated areas. We need to recognize that this is an issue and address the negative regional development."

There is a need for a better match between the education of women and job opportunities in the rural areas. A remaining question concerns the measures that the public authorities can introduce in the rural areas to promote further the creation of jobs and the attractiveness of living there for both women and men.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 2, 2013