With movements like #MeToo taking over social media and celebrities lobbying for salary transparency, the wage gap between men and women is getting more scrutiny than ever. But is it getting better?
A few years ago, sports fans were surprised to learn that even internationally-acclaimed athletes have to fight for fair play. After winning the World Cup, the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team took the league to court demanding they be paid the same amount as the men's team—but it’s already revealed that in terms of equal pay rights for women, the U.S. is losing the game.
Iceland, on the other hand, is winning. The country made a bold step forward by promising government enforcement of laws requiring equal pay, and as of 2021, it has closed 89.2% of its gender wage gap. Iceland also tops lists of overall gender equality, safest places for women to travel alone, and happiest countries in the world. Could these things be related? We’re going to risk an educated guess and say yes. So why hasn’t the rest of the world followed suit? The answer is, unsurprisingly, complicated.
Equal pay for equal work
That headline might seem like a simple, almost juvenile, maxim, but the truth is that the gender pay gap is still running rampant. Multiple acts have been passed trying to curb it. The U.S. passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963 and the UK instituted the Equality Act as recently as 2010. Still, these laws tend to lack actual teeth. That all changed in 2018 when Iceland committed to actively enforcing equal pay. Now, they require companies to submit paperwork proving that people in equivalent roles receive equivalent pay, no matter their gender, race, or background. One year later, no other country has followed suit, a disappointing anticlimax to what should, by now, be a matter of fact.
Progress, but not perfection
We’ve come a long way, baby—or at least that’s what the mega-corporations that benefit from unequal pay standards want you to think. But according to recent studies, in 2018 women still made 82 cents for every dollar men made for the same amount of work. The gap only gets larger when differences of color and nationality are factored in. It’s estimated that the world will have to wait at least another 100 years before the gap closes. That's a long time when you consider that the average woman loses over half a million dollars during the span of a lifetime, compared to what her male counterpart makes.
What's the reason for the lag? A major issue is that countries have different opinions on whose responsibility it is to make sure women workers get paid the same. In the UK for instance, the onus is on the employee to bring discrepancies to light, usually via their unions. There are a host of reasons why employees might choose not to do this, such as peer pressure, fear of reprisal, and simple apathy. Furthermore, once the information is in the union’s hands, it’s up to them how to deal with it. Past efforts, like lobbying and protests, have shown to be less than miraculous.
Leaving it to the law
Other than Iceland, only six countries in the world have laws that protect women’s rights in the workplace as well as men’s: Belgium, Sweden, Luxembourg, Latvia, Denmark, and France. Even in those countries, enforcement remains outside of the purview of the law. Some companies, like Citibank in the U.S. for example, have stated that they’re waiting for government mandates to light the way for equal pay. That’s exactly what the government of Iceland decided to do, and it seems to have helped; Iceland now has the lowest pay gap in the world, followed by Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Way to go, Scandinavia.
Seeing it in action
Though considered a human right by the UN, equal pay continues to evade most of the world. However, that's changing. One way you can show your support is by spending your tourism dollars on countries that are making gender equality a priority. As if there weren’t enough reasons to visit Iceland, now you have one more.
While you're there, visit places that are conscientious about the issue. The Reykjavik City Museum regularly runs exhibitions about the history of women in Iceland. For bookworms, the Women's Book Lounge has every book written by Icelandic women writer, many of them in English translation. The Women's History Archive is the place if you're into black and white photos of stern suffragettes, and who isn't?
While closing the wage gap is still a global issue, and a global struggle, at least it's moving in the right direction. We look forward to adding pins to the equality map as more countries follow suit.