Iceland's New Equal Pay Law Is What Happens When You Elect Women

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The start of a new year always garners feelings of change, but at least one country will see real progress right off the bat in 2018. Iceland banned employers from paying women less than men, officially becoming the first nation to do so. That's right — equal pay became a requirement, not a suggestion, starting Jan. 1, thanks to the nation's parliament (which is made up of almost 50 percent women).

Undr the new rules, companies with more than 25 employees must get a government certificate verifying that they pay both genders equally or face a fine.

"It's a mechanism to ensure women and men are being paid equally," Dagny Osk Aradottir Pind, a board member of the Icelandic Women's Rights Association told Al Jazeera. "We have had legislation saying that pay should be equal for men and women for decades now but we still have a pay gap."

Iceland was already the highest ranking nation in terms of gender equality in 2017 by the World Economic Forum, and ranked at 14th for economic participation and opportunity; in comparison, the United States ranked 49th overall and 19th for economic participation and opportunity. By 2020, Iceland's government hopes to have completely eliminated the gender wage gap.

"I think that now people are starting to realize that this is a systematic problem that we have to tackle with new methods," Aradottir Pind told Al Jazeera.

Iceland's new equal pay law was supported by lawmakers across the political spectrum, but the fact that the country's government includes an equal number of women inevitably played a role. In 2016, women won 30 of Iceland's 63 seats in the Althing, Iceland's parliament, making up about 48 percent of the legislative body. The country also recently elected a female prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who identifies as a feminist and vowed to work toward improving gender equality.

The nation's previous prime minister, Bjarni Benediktsson, explained the proposed equal pay measure on International Women's Day in March.

"There is a standard which we have already taken up, but not all are following it," he said, referring to statistics that Icelandic women make between 14 to 18 percent percent less than men on average. The average wage gap for European Union nations is 16 percent.

A 2013 European Commission study found two main reasons the wage gap persists in Iceland.

First, the part-time rate of women in Iceland is significantly higher than the males' part-time rate and thus leads to a lower income of women. Moreover, Iceland has a segregated labour market with respect to both, sectors and occupations. The pay level is generally lower in the female-dominated occupations, hence women in general receive less in return on their education and experience than men.

In October 2016, Icelandic women left work at 2:38 p.m. in protest of the hours they work without pay compared to their male counterparts. They did the same thing in 2005 and 2008, leaving slightly later each year as the wage gap narrowed.

Although no country has reached complete gender equality, the Nordic countries have continued to set an example for the rest of the world. Along with Iceland, Norway and Finland were ranked the most gender equal nations by the WEF, and Norway is also led by a female prime minister, Erna Solberg, in office since 2013.

The U.S., on the other hand, still has a long way to go. America has never had a female president, and women make up just 20 percent of Congress and 25 percent of state legislatures. American women currently make 20 percent less than men on average. And rather than promoting policies to close the gap, the Trump administration rolled back a measure that would have forced employers to report what they pay their workers.

If Iceland can teach the U.S. anything, it should be that electing more women leads to more policies that promote gender equality. But with a record number of American women running for office, there's hope for 2018.