Exelences, distinguished guests,
It is an honour and a pleasure for me to have this opportunity to address the Twelfth Global Summit of Women. It has been very instructive for me to listen to the range of opinions and different experiences described by the many participants here.
I should like to talk about some recent developments in my country, Iceland, regarding gender equality and the position of women.
Equality issues came into the limelight in 1980 when Iceland’s first woman president was elected. President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was not only Iceland’s first woman president: she was also the first woman in the world to be elected head of state in an open national election. This gave rise to a certain awakening of consciousness among the political parties in the following years. In 1983 a new party, the Women’s Alliance, put forward candidates in the general election, and continued to do so until 1995. When I was elected to represent my party [the Progressive Party] in parliament in 1987, I was only the second woman in the history of the party – the oldest party in the country – to be elected to parliament.
Most of the political parties in Iceland are very much in favour of increasing the role of women in politics. The results of this can be seen from the fact that where about 15% of our members of parliament were women in 1983, this proportion rose to 31% after the last general election in 2003. Comparable figures at the local government level show that the proportion of women rose from 12% in 1982 to 31% in 2002. In this connection, I should mention that women have served in the position of Mayor of Reykjavík for 10 of the past 11 years.
There is a fairly broad consensus in our parliament, the Althingi, on a programme to promote gender equality. A large step towards equality was taken with the passing of the new Act on Maternity, Paternity and Parental Leave. This act was passed five years ago, at the instigation of the government. When it took effect on 1 January 2001, Iceland was the first country to grant mothers and fathers the opportunity of taking paid leave for the same length of time following the birth of their children. Also, three months were added to the period, lengthening it from 6 months to 9. Each parent now has the right to take up to three months of maternity or paternity leave, and they can divide a further three months between them as they wish. The aim is to ensure that infant children have the chance to be brought up by both parents, and also to make it easier for the parents of young children to combine the demands of family life and work. In my opinion, this legislation is one of the largest steps forward in recent years in the direction of further gender equality from several points of view: participation in paid employment, wage equality and equal opportunity to take part in politics.
Since I became Minister of Industry and Commerce just over five years ago, I have tried to do what I can to have women play a greater part in the management and running of businesses. Even though women are becoming more and more active in the business world, and form the majority of university-educated specialists, they are still very much the exception in the top levels of management in Icelandic companies. This is something I would like to change, and I have taken measures to encourage women to play a greater part in running businesses. One of the government bodies that come under my ministries includes a service centre for entrepreneurs and businesses. This concentrates on helping women to start businesses. The main aim is to enable them to develop business ideas, giving them guidance on where to obtain further know-how and to set up a co-operative network of women who are in a similar position. Women who are already running businesses can also obtain guidance on potential openings for their companies. The guidance given to businesswomen under this scheme is intended to provide them with personal assistance and encouragement, develop their skills as planners and managers and stimulate collaboration between businesswomen.
Another programme of this type has been given the name "Step Ahead" (Brautargengi). This consists of a course on founding and running businesses for women who have ideas that they want to put into practice. A survey of the results of this programme showed that 50-60% of the women who have completed the course are now running companies, and most of them say that attending the course made all the difference in helping them to decide to set up their businesses. Also, the vast majority of them say they are far more capable managers after completing the course.
My third example is the support given by a government fund to business ventures that are launched by women. The New Business Venture Fund is one of the bodies under my ministries, and was established to encourage new development and growth in Iceland’s business sector. One of its functions is to give support to small and medium-sized business ventures. My ministry has urged the governing board of the fund to ensure that it supports ventures that create employment among women and open up new business opportunities for them.
This same fund joined together with some strong private companies to back a special campaign intended to encourage women to start businesses. The campaign was called "Women’s Resources" (Auður í krafti kvenna). It was launched in 2000 and lasted for three years. The aim was to achieve measurable results in the form of an increase in the number and size of businesses owned by women. The idea was to make better use of the resources that women have, so contributing to additional economic growth in Iceland. To achieve this, courses of various types were mounted for women in the management and running of businesses.
The outcome of all these measures is that Icelandic women have been making more of a mark in the management and direct running of companies. I believe it is of great importance for Icelandic society that this development should continue, since both the business sector and the community as a whole miss so much unless the skills and talents of both sexes are used to the full. If we succeed in harnessing the know-how and energies of all our citizens, then this will directly increase our competitiveness as a nation and bring benefit to the community in the form of increased well-being.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I have said a little about the status of women in various fields in Iceland and described certain measures that have been taken to encourage them to play a greater part in economic life. My opinion, and that of others, is that these measures have produced very good results.
Finally, I should like to mention that in the last few years, Icelandic companies have turned their sights abroad and invested a great deal in setting up operations on overseas markets. Icelandic politicians have been keen to help them to do this. In this context, I should like to mention that as well as being here to attend this conference, I am heading a trade delegation from 8 women’s companies on a visit to Mexico. This is a particularly gratifying responsibility, and in fact I find it logical to see the visit by this trade delegation as a natural consequence of the developments that have been taking place in Iceland. I hope this will prove to be only the first step in a sequence of overseas ventures by Icelandic businesswomen. And it is my sincere hope that their experience will be an encouragement to other women all over the world.