Iceland’s Election Conundrum Remains a Milestone for Equal Gender Representation in International Politics

Written by: Harry Colvin

On Sunday, September 26, 2021, Iceland began to celebrate its election results that produced a majority female Parliament. Word traveled quickly across news sources around the world that Iceland had become Europe’s first parliament with a majority female representation. But the celebrations were brief. A recount in the afternoon produced a conflicting result, later concluding that the country’s legislature would remain majority male in the 63-seat Parliament. A grand achievement that would have marked a milestone of gender equality in European politics was suddenly diminished to a miscalculation. However, it is crucial to recognize this vote as a sign of progress. 

The initial vote count gave female candidates 33 seats on the Icelandic Parliament, known as the Althing, which was a significant increase from 24 women in the previous vote. The recount on September 26th reduced the number of females to 30, leaving the percentage at about 48 percent. Despite falling short of a majority, Iceland now holds the highest percentage of female lawmakers across Europe, ahead of Sweden and Finland with 47 percent and 46 percent, respectively. 

Though celebrations of reaching a majority female parliament were short-lasting and premature, Iceland’s election results demonstrate the tremendous progress the country has made towards achieving gender equality in government. The Nordic country has been at the forefront of gender equality for quite some time now. In 1980, Icelanders elected Vigdís Finnbogadóttir as their president, making her both the country’s and the world’s first democratically elected, female president. Notably, the 1980 election was preceded by a massive women’s strike in 1975, in which 90 percent of Icelandic women participated. The powerful legacy she left behind in her 16 years as President is rooted in her accomplishments in the environment, education, and protection of the language and heritage of Iceland. She also undoubtedly left an impact on the minds of young women across the globe who heard of her historic story. Finnborgadóttir won the next three presidential elections, facing no competition in each of them, and ultimately decided not to run again in 1996. 

In their 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, the World Economic Forum (WEF) rated Iceland as the country closest to closing the gender gap, calculating that it is 89.2 percent closed. This number was calculated by considering a variety of economic and political factors. The WEF utilized the following factors in their calculations: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Education Attainment, Health and Survival and Political Empowerment. Although it has already been made clear that Iceland is ahead of the rest in political gender parity, the country’s well-roundedness in overall opportunity for women also stands out. 

While Iceland has long been ahead of the curve for gender equality within Europe, other areas of the world have achieved a great deal of success as well. The Rwandan, Cuban and Nicaraguan parliaments are composed of over 50 percent women, and both Mexico and the United Arab Emirates have precisely a 50/50 division. The precedents set by these countries are being followed across the world, as more countries are getting closer to parity in legislature.

It is also important to consider that looking strictly at legislature does not tell the whole story. According to United Nations Women, 13 countries have 50 percent or more female representation in ministerial positions, including Albania, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Andorra, France and Austria in Europe. They’re joined by Guinea-Bissau, Canada, Rwanda, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The progress made by these countries, however, is still outmatched by the lack of gender equality that plagues most countries around the world. Out of the 200 government legislatures accounted for by the United Nations, 115 are less than a quarter female. Countries like Iceland are leading the pack, and now it’s time for the world to play follow the leader. 

We live in a world where women make up approximately 50 percent of the population. Achieving gender equality in government should not be a controversial demand. Lawmaking, the area of the government that national parliaments are responsible for, is an especially crucial area where equal representation is necessary. Equal representation in legislatures allows countries to represent and consider the lives of both men and women. Many countries have male-controlled governments that dictate female reproductive laws, female education laws, and the general opportunity women have to achieve what they want to achieve. Take a look at Yemen, for example. According to the United Nation’s Human Development Reports, the average length of education that Yemeni women achieve is 2.9 years, compared to nearly six years on average for men. Only 5.8 percent of Yemeni women, ages 15 and older, are participants in the Yemeni labor force. Yemen ranks second to last in WEF’s 2021 Gender Gap Report. 

It is morally unjust for governments composed vastly of men to create these restrictions. While countries such as Iceland, Mexico, Rwanda and more are making great strides towards gender parity in politics, other countries have significant work cut out for them. 

Crucially, much of the work needed to be done to achieve gender equality lies in some of the world’s largest economies. According to UN Women, The United States, which has the world’s largest GDP, is home to a legislature made up of 27.3 percent women. China, with the second largest GDP, has a legislature made up of 24.9 percent women. In Japan, the world’s third largest economy, only 9.9 percent of the legislature is made of women. It is crucial that women are represented in global economics and politics, because they ensure that women are being spoken for and considered when it comes time to make decisions. Equality on the ground cannot be attained without equal representation at the top.

Some countries have set different types of quotas for gender opportunity in politics, including requirements that establish a minimum percentage of women represented in different government sectors. For example, Mexico has a quota that requires their legislature and other areas of the government to be 50 percent female. Quotas are a highly debated topic, however, as some argue that setting a minimum requirement for female representation ultimately prioritizes identity over the qualifications of a candidate. Iceland managed to achieve its European record-setting achievement without a quota.

The Conversation’s article, “The more women in government, the healthier a population,” gives insight into benefits for a country that has more women participating in its government. Their research finds that with more women in government there are fewer deaths, a greater focus on education and health and even stronger dedication to the democratic process rather than authoritativeness, which is more common with men in positions of power. 

Legend has it that when Ronald Reagan became president of the United States, one small Icelandic boy was outraged. He exclaimed to his mother, “He can’t be President — he’s a man!” Iceland has set the benchmark, and it’s up to the rest of the world to match that. Achieving equality in everyday life starts with achieving equality in government.