Four days inside Iceland’s working, single mom paradise (where sexism still persists)
“I’ve never had to get to three,” she said.
Every parent knows exactly what that means, but there’s aren’t many who can say they’re never had to get there. Then again, Kitty Von-Sometime isn’t like most people. She’s a British-born Icelandic transplant, mother, LGBT rights activist, artist and contractor for some of the largest and up-and-coming gaming shops in Iceland.
Von-Sometime’s kid once asked her “What happens at three?” She responded with a terrifyingly stern face: “Do you really want to find out?” As she told me this story, Von-Sometime was wearing a sweatsuit covered with pictures of Daffy Duck. It’s hard to look intimidating wearing head-to-toe Daffy Duck and yet I -- like her child-- would have been a little scared to find out what happens at three.
We get to three a lot in my house. And that’s not because I’m not strict. Don’t get me wrong: There are always consequences at three. When I start with “one…” Eli will sometimes look at me in a panic and say “NO COUNTING! NO COUNTING!”
“Never getting to three” encapsulates the matriarchal culture of Iceland perhaps better than I heard anyone else explain it over the last week. Last Thursday, I set off for Iceland, my first international reporting trip since Eli was a baby.
This is something I used to do a lot: I’ve done extensive on the ground reporting in Israel, Rwanda, Nigeria, China, India, Russia, Indonesia, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Singapore, and more. But with most of those countries I was exploring budding pockets of high growth entrepreneurship. In Iceland, I was exploring a culture of motherhood.
Entrepreneurship and motherhood. Two creative endeavors that can drain you as much as they recharge you. One typically the purview of men, one the purview of women. Two endeavours that have come to dominate my personal life for the last five years, as I started a business and became a mother. And now they’re consuming my work itself. As regular Pando readers know, I’m writing a book on motherhood and entrepreneurship for Harper Business. It’s half memoir of the last five years of my own journey and half my journey as a reporter to understand the biases that I believed for some 15 years of adulthood before I had children. Biases that made me terrified of having children. Biases that hold mothers back from achieving their potential in the workplace, the world over.
A few months ago, I got a sitter for my kids on a Friday night so that I could attend a lecture on “The Logic of Misogyny” at the home of Kim Scott. (I know, you’re jealous right?) Kate Manne, assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell and the author of a forthcoming book called “Down Girl: How Misogyny Upholds Male Dominance” certainly has had a lot of material to work with in this election, and if she spent more time in the Valley she’d find the “bro culture” a trove of horrific findings. She said many interesting things about a word that I -- and a lot of people-- throw around a lot these days.
But one thing in particular she said has stuck with me since that night. Someone asked about these traits we know are common in women-- that we don’t ask for raises, that we are more conservative versus risk-taking, that we build deeper networks versus wider networks, that whole thing about math and science-- and whether those are genetic or the cultural ramifications of centuries of misogyny.
Manne noted how much research was going into answering this question. And added that she thought most of it was going to be unsatisfying, because we’ve never had a “control group,” ie a society where women were completely equal to compare ourselves against.
And so I wound up in Iceland last week. A country where some two-thirds of the children are born to single mothers, a country with one of the smallest gaps between male and female pay, and a country frequently called one of the most feminist countries in the world.
Iceland is not the control group that Manne was talking about, she’s right that no place is. As I heard in interview after interview, there’s still plenty of sexism in the country, most of the senior levels at business are held by men, and women still frequently feel pulled unfairly between the expectations of home and the expectations of work. And there is still that gap in pay that infuriates every woman in Iceland because as a so-called “feminist” country they believe there shouldn’t be any gap at all.
But Iceland is a country where some of the stigmas that hold women back in the US simply don’t exist. There is no stigma against unmarried mothers. Even among people I spoke to who have had multiple kids with the same partner and were married, they only really got around it after kids were walking, and really just as a lark or for practical reasons, like, say, moving to another country where marriage made the paperwork easier.
Iceland also doesn’t have a morality hang up when it comes to working women. In that sense, there are refreshingly limited cultural “mommy wars”: Nearly every mother works. When I asked women of multiple ages and generations if they have ever known a stay at home mom, either when they were growing up or they were raising their own kids, they had to think about it hard. The answer was either “no” or something like “there was one woman who was disabled.”
For what it’s worth, Iceland doesn’t seem to have a lot of the morality hang ups of the US, period. Von-Sometime noted that her wife-- also a transplant-- was frustrated by Iceland’s lack of a gay section of the city or subculture the way you have in cities like New York, London or San Francisco. Because there’s not a lot of moral outrage to gay culture, there was never the evolution of a gay counter-culture, Von-Sometime explained. Whenever gay bars open, the local straight folks shrug and over populate them.
There is a comparatively shame-free “hook up” culture in Iceland, too, although some women admit there’s the usual gossip. One startup built an app that attempted to chart the entire country’s family tree, going back to old Nordic texts that listed how Viking heroes were related to one another. There was a Facebook plug in and a phone “bumping feature” so you could see if you were related to a girl you were chatting up at a bar. The slogan: “bump the app before you bump in bed.”
I heard a much more encouraging story: Of a girl who got pregnant after a one-night-stand. There was the usual whispers after, but she faced no pressure to have an abortion from her family, and the man is currently a 50%-50% father although the two aren’t together. Indeed siblings in a family who all have the same two parents are a rarity in Iceland.
Of course, there’s a fine line between female sexual empowerment and the exploitation of it, here in the US and apparently in Iceland. That carefree attitude was grossly exploited by IcelandAir’s “Have a dirty weekend in Iceland” advertising campaign to the horror of most women I spoke with. The company rapidly backtracked after the outrage.
When I told these women that 40% of people in the latest Pew Survey in America believed that more women working in the US was “bad” for society, they looked at me like I was insane. Like I was literally making up that stat.
“Don’t most families in America need two incomes?” some asked me.
“Yes,” I said. “Indeed in some 40% moms are the sole or primary breadwinners. That’s one thing that makes it so mean.”
More unbelievable to many was that I took no maternity leave at all with my second child. Not to mention how common that is here. According to the Labor Department, corporate and state benefits only cover some 12% of private sector women with any kind of paid maternity leave at all.
Somehow our bizarro election began to make more sense for many of these women.
Over a crammed four days I interviewed nearly 20 women and their stories of motherhood and work and mashed-up families and matriarchal culture ranged from funny, to universal, to… hard to listen to at times. I was struck by how open the women all were. How many homes I was invited into. And mostly how easy it was to find women to talk to. I had one contact in the country and decided a week before my flight I was going. By the time I landed I had a spiderweb of email intros and a crammed four days of meetings.
One thing was clear in each conversation: Even with more rights than a lot of women in my own country or others around the world, every one of these women were unsatisfied and were pushing for more. Icelandic women don’t live in that elusive control group Manne was talking about, but they believe they should. They are empowered to push until their future generations of sons and daughters do.
I have more than 20 hours of recordings that I obviously haven’t begun to transcribe, so this story is light on all those amazing individual stories of struggle and growth. Like Halla Tomasdottir’s: She had a promising career climbing the corporate ladder in the US adopting the qualities of “a guy” before she moved back to Iceland to recover her feminine strength, have children, build an investment company that survived the 2008 crash. Just this past summer she came in second in the Icelandic Presidential race-- far better than she was expected to fare.
Or the story of Brynja Gudmundsdottir, a single mom of four kids, who built her software company when her two youngest were under the age of five. Her oldest son-- now in his 20s-- remembers the days they were living with her mother-in-law, although their dad was no longer around. She was spending her mornings in University, playing with her kids in the afternoon and then studying after they went to bed. He remembers her tucking them in at night back when the family had nothing-- not even their own place to live-- and saying, “You know how much I love you guys, right?” The contrast between those days and how his younger siblings are now downright spoiled thanks to her financial success since is staggering to him. He doesn’t resent her time away from them building her career, he’s in awe of her maternal strength and love.
For more of that-- and more on motherhood in the United States and around the world-- well, you’ll have to wait a year to read the book.
But in the meantime I wanted to share some of my high level takeaways from my long weekend inside this unsatisfying but fascinating “control group.”
The depressing upshot? There’s still a lot of sexism. Even in a place where women aren’t morally guilted if they work and families are blended and female sole breadwinners aren’t admired not denigrated. Even in a place where there’s subsidized child care and family leave. Even in a place where policies encourage men to take an active role in childcare. Even in a place that has quotas forcing companies to have more women on boards. Even in Iceland: Women aren’t close to equal in the workplace.
I went to a tech conference on VR and gaming called “Slush Play” one of the biggest tech events in Iceland, I was told. While it hardly had the bro-y atmosphere you’d expect from a gaming conference, and there seemed a far healthier mix of men and women in the audience, most of the speakers were men. And most of the executives of companies are also men. Despite most women and mothers being in the Icelandic workforce, women still struggle to get to the top.
There were a lot of theories why. Another recent Icelandic transplant, Paula Gould, noted one clue: Socially in Iceland, men tend to hang out with men and women go out with women. She said her husband has female friends, but he doesn’t go out drinking with them in mixed groups the way she always did in the US with men and women.
As she described this, the other women in the room-- all Icelandic-- gasped in “I’d never thought of that!” agreement.
Days later, I spoke with Stefania Katrin Karlsdottir, who has raised two daughters now in their twenties and has worked in a range of industries around the country. I asked her what advice she gave her daughters. She said it was to make friends with the boys when they went to university. If someone calls you and asks you to come up with a list of potential board members, she says, you’ll probably think of people you are friends with. One reason men dominate so many top jobs is because men’s social networks are still mostly dominated by men, she argued. Her daughters took her advice and are both engineers.
The persistent wage gap. There were a lot of theories on why this is. One was that women have lower paying jobs, like teachers. Another was that women prioritize leaving at 4 pm to pick up their kids. Another was that -- just like in the US-- women ask for less money in the beginning and fail to lobby for raises. Several women in management positions described their discomfort knowing just how unequal the salaries were. Several wished the government would do more to force accountability and radical transparency of salaries in Iceland’s biggest companies.
The role of the government. Culturally, Icelanders are way more comfortable turning to the government to brute-force solve these problems than we are in the US. Part of that is evidence that it’s worked in the past. Woman after woman told me the single most important piece of legislation promoting equality was the way Iceland does family leave.
Families get nine months: Three can only be used for the mothers, three can only be used by the fathers, and three can be split in any way. Families get paid a percentage of their salary during this time. If the fathers don’t use their three months, the family loses it.
This policy was so successful initially that some 90% of men took advantage of it. But then 2008 happened. The crash of 2008 was so devastating, it factors into every cultural, business, or personal narrative I heard in Iceland. After 2008, the percentage of income paid was slashed by some 30%. This as the cost of living has increased substantially in Iceland. And because they were the bigger breadwinners, on average, men stopped taking leave because the family couldn’t justify the income hit. Participation fell by 40% and the Icelandic birth rate is at the lowest level since 1953.
Eva Dogg Gudmundsdottir has children more than ten years apart in age and says the difference in her leave before and after 2008 was staggering. The first time she and the father shared the load and got a large percentage of their regular pay. But this last time, the money paid out was so small that she wound up taking a year’s leave while her partner took none. As such, the bulk of the work of the household fell to her. Her employers, too, began taking projects from her assuming her household duties would grow with a new relationship, three stepkids, and a baby on the way. She described a vicious cycle of her employers pulling back projects out of fear that she’d take over more household duties, and then the pressure to take on more household duties, because -- after all-- she wasn’t getting more projects at work and had more time. She recently broke the cycle by quitting and starting her own consultancy.
There is an election this fall and a major push is on to go back to the way things were.
It’s not simply that the old policy-- and the near universal adoption of it-- set the precedent of 50%-50% families from the beginning. It affected hiring and wages for women too. When employers the world over see a young woman, they see a ticking uterus. In a country like Iceland, they also see six months to a year of maternity leave. Three months is the absolute minimum women I spoke with take, and that’s a luxurious leave by US standards.
But when 90% of men are taking advantage of the same parental leave policy, the chance that a young man will be out for three to six months is just as great.
That said, women still take a hit for taking long leaves. One young, ambitious woman I spoke with who didn’t yet have kids, said she assumed she’d have to move jobs after her leave. Although jobs can’t be given away, when you come back after six months, you still have to fight for your place and prove yourself again, she said.
I’m a reluctant liberal in many ways and have been called a “free market monster” before. And yet, I came away from this trip more convinced than ever that federally mandated family leave is essential to gender equality in America.