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Senior Arctic Official for Iceland.

Gender equality is a necessary foundation for sustainable communities in the Arctic.”

Photo courtesy of Bryndís Kjartansdóttir.

Photo courtesy of Bryndís Kjartansdóttir.

Iceland has very progressive policies on gender equality. Bryndís Kjartansdóttir, Senior Arctic Official for Iceland, which holds the Chairmanship 2019-2021, in conversation with Erica Dingman discusses how gender issues are being addressed at the Arctic Council.

Erica Dingman: In January 2018, the Government of Iceland decided to enforce the 1961 law prohibiting pay discrimination by introducing into law the Equal Pay Standard and Certification. What does that law entail? How might that knowledge be applied to your work at the Arctic Council?

Bryndís Kjartansdóttir: Despite that 1961 law prohibiting pay discrimination, the gender pay gap persisted. So, in 2008, the trade unions proposed the idea of equal pay on a voluntary basis. However, in 2015, women in Iceland still earned approximately 14-20% less than men according to Statistics Iceland. In 2017, a bill for equal pay was introduced by the Minister of Social Affairs and Equality and came into effect in 2018. The government expects to close the gender pay gap by 2022. This will require companies and institutions with over 25 employees to implement an equal pay management system, which is then verified by an independent auditor. Once the standards are met, certification is granted and must be renewed every three years. Companies and institutions with more than 250 employees are required to obtain certification by the end of 2019. Smaller workplaces have more time. Companies and institutions that do not meet the certification deadline are fined at a rate of approximately US$450 a day. The law provides companies and institutions with management tools to eliminate gender-based bias, intended to increase employee satisfaction through increased confidence in the employer’s pay scale decision-making. The standard is a product of cooperation between government and the labor market and reflects a shared vision on how to implement and maintain equal pay. 

You asked how this may be applied to the Arctic Council (AC). To answer that I’d like to offer some insight into the work of the Arctic Council. The AC is not a decision-making forum, nor is it a regulatory body, it therefore cannot make any decisions related to the gender pay gap or other issues relating to gender equality. What the AC does and is, is foremost a knowledge builder. The bulk of the work is done through projects driven forward by the Working Groups and other subsidiary bodies. These Working Groups provide knowledge and make recommendations. In this way the AC builds knowledge of the Arctic, its characteristics and changes whether they are social, environmental or economic. Most gender-related issues at the AC are channeled through the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG). Through knowledge building processes introduced by Iceland, and of course other Member states and Indigenous peoples’ organizations, we can build knowledge of gender issues. This knowledge is important for all debate on the Arctic. But, it also benefits Arctic policy-makers in both national and municipal governments. It is mainly this way that knowledge deriving from Iceland’s progressive policies on gender equality can be considered by Arctic inhabitants and hopefully benefit communities.

There is a lot of expertise in Iceland on gender equality and we welcome the opportunity to share our knowledge within the AC. Through the Chairmanship we have the opportunity to further the issue of gender equality for future consideration at the AC, to contribute to normalizing the discourse on gender within the AC as well as in the region generally. It’s also an opportunity to engage with the Council’s Member states, the Permanent Participants and the Observers to find common ground on gender issues. But I think it’s important to understand that Arctic communities are different when it comes to gender equality issues. Our experts in the field are equally interested in learning about gender issues in different corners of the region. So, I underline, our way is not the only way.

I should mention some of the key findings on gender that have come out of the AC so far. It has been shown that the out migration of women from the Arctic is definitely an issue; that there is a lack of education, not least among young men. Violence is a problem both domestic and amongst men, high suicide rates are persistent, again particularly amongst young men. Then there is the issue of economic diversity, many of the projects that often are considered in the Arctic tend to be male oriented mega projects which relate to resource utilization like shipping, oil and gas extraction, and mining. Such resource-based approaches have been shown to further gender-based imbalances.

ED: The 2015 Gender Equality in the Arctic report found that Arctic discourses reflect a highly masculine agenda of development. A result is that relatively little attention and funding has been allocated for social and gender-related issues. Has there been improvement since 2015? What can the AC do to promote an inclusive and more diverse set of voices that respects different interests?

BK:  There are indications that Arctic discourses are slightly more inclusive in terms of gender issues with a greater understanding of how these issues are implicated in social, economic and political decision and policy-making processes.

Iceland’s experience in this field feeds into efforts within the SDWG including ongoing Council projects on Gender Equality in the Arctic where Iceland continues to take the lead. The project is entering its third phase, we now have concrete knowledge and experience on effective and ineffective policy development, which can provide valuable insight for communities with shared goals. We think that taking into account both male and female oriented ideas about socio-economic development has demonstrated more long-term thinking and is more in line with the principles of sustainable development. This of course affects communities and provides more possibilities for a more viable future. 

The AC is first and foremost a forum for sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic. As we know, gender equality is a necessary foundation for sustainable communities in the Arctic, or any other part of the world. We now see increased interest in gender issues, for example, in the high level of participation in gender issue events, at the Arctic Circle Assembly, and Arctic Frontiers in Tromso, among others. We like to think that the Conference on Gender Equality in the Arctic in 2014 contributed to this increased interest.

With regard to funding, I think it’s important to know that all AC projects are funded on a voluntary basis by Member states or Observers, which is generally done through direct funding or in-kind contributions. In addition, many AC projects are also funded through grants. So, it’s very difficult for me to answer whether there is more or less money going into gender issues.

The 2015 gender equality report highlighted, amongst other things, that economic diversity and knowledge-based companies will be very important for socio-economic and sustainable development. At the same time, we do see that the industrial narrative, though somewhat softer, tends to capture the most attention. So, the discourse on and in the Arctic is still somewhat masculinized.

With regard to a more inclusive and diverse set of voices, I think the AC can incorporate a discourse of gender equality as part of environmental stewardship and sustainable development. This is being done throughout the Councils’ Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG). Our hope is that we will gradually normalize gender into the work and discourse of the AC.  

I also think it’s important to know, in this context, that Indigenous voices are represented within the AC.

ED: Iceland’s overarching theme for this Arctic Council Chairmanship is sustainable development. What does this priority entail? What outcomes do you aim for?

BK: Yes, Iceland’s theme is sustainable development. That choice draws on both the Ottawa Declaration that founded the AC in 1996, and also on Iceland’s experiences. Among other things we are underlining the simple fact that the Arctic is not only untouched wilderness, it is also home to people. Most Arctic inhabitants live with an affinity for nature and must deal with very challenging environmental conditions. We also rely extensively on our natural environment for our livelihood whether it’s fishing or tourism, energy production or agriculture. So, with sustainable development as our guiding principle, together with the rich and diverse cultures that the circumpolar region has, we can build prosperous societies. That is a message that we want to bring across. We are emphasizing development and sustainability with a focus on balancing the three pillars of sustainable development – environmental, economic, and social. Considerations of gender and gender equality are, and should be, a natural part of this approach. This is in line with the fifth sustainable development goal on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.

During our Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, we are also focusing on more concrete issues. As mentioned before we have approved a third gender equality project, which will result in a report to be published in 2021 with the conclusion of Iceland’s Chairmanship. That report will add to our knowledge of how gender plays a role in Arctic communities and in the AC as well. Building knowledge about what characterizes gender equality in the Arctic is very important with a view to secure sustainable and resilient communities in the region.

In addition, we want to invite two students from the Arctic to participate in the United Nations University on Gender Equality and Training Program; called UNU-GEST, which is located in Iceland. The object of this program is to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment through research and education. In this way we hope to train professionals working for governments and civil society organizations to improve their knowledge of gender equality issues with the aim of strengthening Arctic communities.  

Last but not least we are aiming our focal point at the well-being of young people. In the Fall, we will hold a seminar on this topic to look at solutions that have shown positive results. We also have issues of innovation on our agenda. This should have the effect of diversifying economic activities in the North and thereby increase job opportunities for women. We are, for example, focusing on the blue bio economy and together with the Kingdom of Denmark an innovation competition among young people will be organized in the Arctic. We hope that our efforts will contribute to gender equality becoming a permanent and natural part of the Council agenda. It is obviously a necessary foundation for a peaceful and prosperous and sustainable region.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Photo courtesy of Bryndís Kjartansdóttir.

Photo courtesy of Bryndís Kjartansdóttir.

Ms. Bryndís Kjartansdóttir has been the Icelandic SAO since January 2018 and MFA’s Director for Arctic Affairs from that time. She joined the MFA in 1998 and has since worked on EU relations and the EEA Agreement, UNESCO and the UN sustainable development agenda, Arctic affairs and Nordic cooperation, trade and export services and EU Accession Negotiations. She has been posted in Paris, Copenhagen and Stockholm. Previously, before joining the MFA and after graduating from the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, she worked in the EFTA Surveillance Authority in Brussels as an expert in free movement of goods.

You can follow Bryndis on Twitter at @BryndisKjartan1.

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Aurora champions women and gender equality through a series of interviews inclusive of a wide range of voices. We recognize that freedom of expression is an important step towards equitable outcomes for women and by extension all of humanity.