Final thoughts

We’re a highly ethnocentric country. My husband and I have noticed that the “world news” portion of many network broadcasts will report four stories, three of which took place in the U.S. Why aren’t these stories national news? It’s because we see ourselves as being at the center of the rest of the world.

One of the best definitions of ethnocentrism points out that it isn’t the same as patriotism or racism. It’s “where a group of people compares themselves to outsiders by using the cultural norms of their own group, and often then surmise that they are superior to all others.”

It still catches me off guard sometimes when I see how other countries view us. We’re defined by Hollywood, NYC and maybe a little cowboy thrown in. This makes us intriguing in some ways, but pushy and un-evolved in other ways. They root for us to do the right things, politically, environmentally and socially and they’re disappointed when we don’t.

You only have to travel internationally to know that people in other countries don’t think we’re as wonderful as we think we are. In fact, they don’t really think about us much at all. They’re focused on their own lives, their countries and, possibly, the continent they’re a part of. We are not the center of their universes. In a typical news broadcast in Europe, for example, the United States is not mentioned unless there has been a news event of significant violence or our President is speaking on a global topic.

Iceland holds us in esteem, but politely encourages us to take a sharper look at our weaknesses and do something about them. Great country. Just like many, many countries in the world. Flawed country. Just like many, many countries in the world.

You can fight this notion when you travel. You can keep your American lens firmly in place, but then you miss an opportunity to truly learn from others. Iceland is about thirty years ahead of the US on issues impacting gender equity. I’ve distilled the words of wisdom we received in our 10 days in their country down to the following:

  1. Elect a women president
  2. Place a priority on your children: free child care, paid family leave and free college for all
  3. Continue to push for equal pay
  4. Care more about the environment—the ice is melting!
  5. Don’t wrap yourselves in complacency
  6. American women have power, now use it
  7. Strong women are STRONG women. Keep your bodies as strong as your opinions.

Icelandic loot

Gettysburg has the blue and the grey. Lancaster has Amish quilts and hex signs. Both are tourist towns near where I live in Pennsylvania. It occurs to me that every tourist area sells something that captures the essence of the place—even if it feels a bit contrived. For Iceland it’s all about puffins, sweaters and salt.


Presents for family, friends and coworkers.

Salt might seem odd, but they produce a lot of it, especially the flakey variety that’s made with geothermal energy. How cool is that? There’s lava salt from the lava fields and flavored salts. Blueberry, rosemary, lavender. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of salt connoisseurs and some might be willing to pay $24 for Icelandic salt.

  And then there’s The Sweater. It’s heavy, scratchy and bulky and people are obsessed with it. I recall visiting Nevada years ago and coming home with beautiful turquoise jewelry. It was everywhere and I got sucked in, convinced I would wear it often. I didn’t. Those regionally-specific souvenirs rarely translate when you return to your regular existence.

So I was on guard where the Icelandic sweater was concerned. I did, however, buy napkins, shot glasses and a key chain with the sweater pattern on it.

I had an interesting experience on one of our road trips when I looked up at the mountains and saw an abstract version of the pattern in its full glory. Were these mountains the inspiration once upon a time?


Is it just me, or do you see the famous sweater pattern, too?

Then there’s the puffin. Everyone loves this little guy and it does seem to translate beyond it’s hometown. Whether you’ve visited them in the zoo or seen them on cereal boxes, these indigenous birds are considered as adorable as koalas and panda bears. You can take puffin tours in Iceland and see the monogamous little birds in their natural habitat.

Or you can go to the Seafood Restaurant where you’ll find them on the menu. I passed on this delicacy, but came home with puffin tea towels and a knit cap for gifts.

And, in case you’re wondering, I splurged on some smaller packets of salt. And a lava necklace. Which just might end up at the bottom of my jewelry book with the turquoise necklace from 1988.

Family ties

Icelanders are very casual about the state of matrimony. In other words, it’s not a high priority. About 70 percent of firstborn children are born outside of marriage. Many women become mothers in their teens, not just without stigma, but with total acceptance and support of their families. Children are highly valued in their society and we met a number of professional women with four and five children.

Attending a women-in-technology presentation at Microsoft’s new headquarters in Reykjavik, we met Ragga who told us both about her professional and personal lives. Her PowerPoint presentation included several wedding photos that pictured a beautiful flaxen-haired bride and joyful groom posing together with their four and six-year-old sons. Smiles and laughter all around.


We’d heard about this several times before on our trip, but I think the photo really struck us. No one had any comments, though. We all just kept our plastic smiles firmly fixed in place.

Did it seem too intimate to inquire about these details? I think it may have been more a sign of our ambivalence. We just didn’t know how to process the information.

Even now I find myself bouncing back and forth between viewing this through the filter of American morality and then conversely through one of open acceptance of sexuality and parenthood. Contraception has given women in many parts of the world the power to choose when and if to have children. Does the availability of free child care and paid parental leave change that so significantly?

Iceland familyWomen in Iceland are well educated and they enter the workforce in droves. They achieve a balance unknown to many in the U.S. due in large part to having husbands who are highly engaged in raising the children and tending the home.

This brings us to the subject of husbands. If a woman feels no early pressure to marry one or more of the fathers of her children, then when does the marriage bug take hold? I asked my sister travelers this question and received a number of answers.

Perhaps they marry when they final find The One and feel it’s a true love match. Maybe marriage carries legal benefits and at some point this becomes a logical next step. There might even be an age at which marriage becomes a social norm. Now, of course, I wish I’d asked this question of our hosts. I’m curious.

I recall toward the end of the tech visit when we asked how many children each of the women had, we finally veered close to directly addressing the family life issue when our hosts mentioned that it’s not uncommon for Icelandic women to have their first child in their teens. We explained that in the U.S. almost half of first-born children are born to unmarried women, but these are largely women who have not graduated from high school or college. Economic stability will be a serious challenge, and maybe an elusive goal, for many of these mothers.

Quizzical looks crossed the faces of the Icelandic women. You could see them processing this information in the same way we had done when first introduced to the facts about their way of life. The government in Iceland provides for healthcare, child care and education through college, supported by high tax rates to the general population. There is a social service net in place that protects mothers and families. There were many questions that could have come next, but we all just sat in silence for a few seconds. Then we moved on to a different topic. Ambivalence, it seems, is one thing we do have in common.

Feminist is not a dirty word

If you would stand on any corner in Reykjavik and randomly ask people, “Are you a feminist?” I wholeheartedly believe your answers would be along these lines:

Of course.
Isn’t everybody?
I am. Are you?

Imagine for a moment doing the same thing in any major city in the U.S.

I think it would be a mixed bag, but you’d definitely get more cringe worthy comments. Somewhere along the way the word feminist has become tainted in our country. Most people who believe in equality for all, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status—still might not embrace saying they’re feminists.

It’s time we recognize that demonizing the word feminist was a ploy to derail an entire movement. And it worked.


Billboard in Reykjavik about lack of funding for women during their recent film festival

Those fighting for equal rights in the United States hit a roadblock so big in 1980 when the ERA was stopped, just three states short of approval, that we’ve never fully recovered. The opposition threw everything in the way of its passage and most particularly playing on everyone’s worst fears. “We will end up with restrooms for both sexes.” “Women will go into combat and die.” “The fabric of the family will erode and divorce rates will rise.”

Well, guess what? Those things happened anyway. We didn’t need an amendment for social change to take place. We did need one, however, to require equity and equality.

During a recent YWCA USA brand presentation, Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech was played to remind all of the CEOs that we must continue to support equal pay for women. Here’s the short clip in case you missed it:

It’s great to work for an organization that understands that:

“Women comprise more than half of today’s workforce.  1 in 4 women are now the sole or primary breadwinners for their families.  There is no doubt that women are central to the economic well-being for their families and play a critical role in our nation’s economic prosperity.  Despite this, 21st work place policies are out-of-date and do not adequately support women’s ability to balance work-family demands. “

Now I need to get to work on implementing a plan together with our great staff to align YWCA York with the national YWCA work and family agenda. I believe my time spent in Iceland is an important component of my education in being an advocate for my local community and on national and global levels, too.

So grateful for the chance to join CWD women on this study trip.

Sometimes a rock is just a rock


Professor Gunnell entertains the delegates from CWD

Elves or “hidden people” are widely talked about in Iceland. A survey conducted in 2006 indicates that more than half the population is respectful of this tradition to the point of saying they believe there could be something to it. I thought elves might just be something they promote to tourists for a little fun. Then I learned, during a lecture on the elf culture by Professor Terry Gunnell at the University of Iceland, that there are roads that jog around large rocks in Iceland because they’re believed to be “elf rocks.”

An elf rock is where elves reside—makes perfect sense—and, since the cities were built up from ancient lands, there are elf rocks right in the heart of Reykjavik. These are big rocks, too. Elves in Iceland are dissimilar to the leprechauns of Ireland and the faeries of England in that they are about the size of small adults. Housing an elf, therefore, takes a pretty substantial rock.


Elf rock in a downtown parking lot

Another survey question, particularly addressed to those who say they do not believe in elves, asked, “If there was an elf rock on your property, would you feel comfortable removing it?” Even the doubters and disbelievers confessed they wouldn’t be willing to take such bold action. Fortunately for Icelandic developers, it’s possible to arrange to have someone communicate with the elf in the rock and get her or his permission to relocate to a new piece of land. Good to know.

When seeking the origin of such myths, the research can carry you to the 1500’s and even earlier. Often they were born out of the need to explain the forces of nature and to maintain just enough fear in people to keep them from wandering beyond the small communities into dangerous terrain. When you think about the raging waterfalls, murky blue lakes, jagged arctic terrain, unpredicatble volcanoes, and explosive geysers that cover the country of Iceland, it’s no wonder the supernatural of an “underworld” became integrated into their belief system.

The fact that these fables continue today adds to the charm and intrigue of Iceland. You can book lectures, take tours and even attend Elf School, if you’re so inclined. Armed with our new knowledge, we spent the next day traveling through the wilderness, gazing at thousands of large rocks in the volcanic fields and wondering, “What it?”

Power trip

We’ve been so heavily scheduled this week that the longest “free” stretch we’ve had was for about an hour. Early mornings and late nights. Back to back meetings, tours and meals. There have been free passes to the spa at our hotel that have gone unused as we’ve given new meaning to the concept of power traveling.


Today we were up extra early to spend some time at the only domestic violence shelter in Iceland and then off again for a 90-minute trip to the wilderness. We were joined by a staffer from the U.S. ambassador’s office and a director of an environmental nonprofit. Together, our delegation planted 1001 seedlings that will grow into trees that will anchor the lava fields and make them productive once again.

Back at the hotel we had an hour to take showers and change for the opera. I made it to intermission and then eight of us returned to the comfort of our rooms, unable to keep our eyes open. Dessert in the restaurant will be set up for 10:00 p.m., but I doubt I’ll make that.

In case you’re started to feel sorry for me (I doubt that), I think full disclosure is important. This photo is the view we had while eating our box lunches at the lava field. It is untouched by Photoshop or Instagram and it is truly awesome.


Mr. President

The people of Iceland may call him Ólafur, but this evening we addressed him as Mr. President. The women of CWD were invited to a reception at the home of President Ólafur Grimsson just outside of Reykjavik. He greeted each of us with a hearty handshake and talked about the successes his country has experienced in the years following the economic collapse.

Bessastaðir 2011 - lítil

The presidential residence complex

He recognizes that Iceland’s social welfare policies have been the foundation of the country’s economic prosperity. He said this would be considered political heresy by many in the U.S. who liken government support to socialism.

As the President noted, “These are complicated stories, but Iceland is a reminder that positive change can happen.”

Again and again we’ve heard that Iceland’s parental leave policy that allows mothers to take six months off and provides around 80% of their salaries has been important. What has really changed their society, however, is the additional three months that fathers can take for a total of nine months of paid time for parents. This is a government-funded program.

Having young fathers involved with their children in the first year as primary caretakers has shifted the dynamic of families. Fathers are highly connected to the family and household chores are readily shared. The President was very proud of this accomplishment. Child care is provided for free from the age of two until kindergarten. This is one reason why woman are in the workforce at an astounding rate.


President Grimsson meets the delegates

President Grimsson also remarked, as has just about everyone we’ve talked to, that it’s time for America to have a woman president. Almost every major country had a woman president or prime minister in the 1980’s. “What is taking you so long?” we’ve been asked several times on this trip.

People across the spectrum of political ideology in Iceland (they have five different parties) have said they are hoping Hillary Clinton is elected in 2016. We haven’t met anyone who feels differently about this. She is viewed as highly qualified and a role model for women and girls.

“Once Iceland had a woman president, everyone believed it was possible for young girls to grow up to become leaders at the highest levels,” said one of Iceland’s entrepreneurs. “This changed everything.”

Complicated stories, indeed.


Entrance hall

Knitting empire

We had some options for meeting different women entrepreneurs and I chose to visit a fashion designer in the fish packing district. Steinunn Sigurd was the first student from Iceland to be accepted at Parson School of Design in NYC. Her area of emphasis was in home craft, most specifically, knitting. Steinunn learned to knit from her grandmother and developed her own technique called rhythm knitting. This was the only skill she took to NYC when she began her education in fashion design.


Iceland is heavily populated with knitting and sewing circles where women come together on a regular basis to practice their crafts and chat. Some of the circles stay together for more than thirty years. The closest thing we have to this in the US would be the ritual of the book club that has emerged over the past ten years. The experience ends up being more about connection and support than it is about knitting or discussing books.

Steinunn worked for Calvin Klein for eight years and became a cashmere expert traveling to Outer Mongolia to source their products. She found herself fascinated with the technology of knits. “How far can I push the yarn?” she asked. It turns out she could design and produce quadruple cable knits for CK which had never been done before. Their knit business grew to 120,000 units a year due to her innovative techniques and quality yarns.

She left NYC for Italy and worked for Gucci in the 80’s before the reinvention of the company to the powerhouse it would become just ten years later. Over the years she started to think about starting her own line and returning to Iceland. She finally made the leap and came back to Reykyavik.

IMG_2071She has always been inspired by the landscape of her homeland. Snow comes in many textures: frostbite snow, dirty snow, snow dunes. It all shows up in her knits along with the textures of lava, fish skin and aerial views of the rivers and waterfalls. She is both a designer and an artist. Her installations have gained her notoriety and awards over the years.

Still regrouping from the economic crash, Steinunn only sells her garments in Iceland. Last year Calvin Klein visited her studio and attended Design March, an annual celebration of Icelandic fashion design. He was stunned to see that she had archived all of her knits throughout her career and he poured over her catalogs from her years with his company.

IMG_2091Her studio is both creative and uber organized. Get to know her artistry through her FB page:

Or view some examples of rhythm knitting from YouTube:

Battling back from a crisis

Birna Einarsdóttir is the CEO of IslandsBanki where a significant number of female executives have found career positions. In this country it would probably be labeled a “women’s bank” as there are such institutions catering primarily to female customers In Iceland, IslandsBank is just a bank.


CEO, Birna Einarsdóttir, is on the far left, standing with her executive team.

In 2008 Iceland was hit very hard by the financial crisis. Their stock market plunged by 90% and the major banks collapsed. This was the scene when Birna was promoted to CEO.

When we met with her on Monday, she was dressed casually, having participated in a “bike to work day” event in Reykjavik. She and her staff appeared to have a relaxed working relationship and there was little sense of hierarchy in how Birna has structured her team.

Birne talked about the concept of the glass cliff. I’d never heard of it, but it refers to the frequency with which women are given opportunities to lead during a crisis. Sometimes it’s because women are perceived as being better “fixers” and other times it’s because trying a bold solution seems like the way to bring about change and putting a women at the top is still considered bold.

Birna jokingly said she had dreamed of having the job and had even pictured her first day as CEO as a day to walk around and meet customers and employees wearing a designer skirt. Instead, due to the financial meltdown that ousted the former CEO, she dealt with 100 scared employees and 1,000 angry customers, many of whom were picketing in the streets.

“On my first day, no one cared about my pretty skirt.”

So, she got to work. Birna’s turnaround of the bank has been exceptional. She felt it was necessary to put out the fires, but not at the expense of strategic planning. The focus for the present and the future came back to rebuilding the bank’s core business. Operations were streamlined, supply contracts renegotiated and branches merged.

In terms of Iceland’s commitment to equal rights in financial institutions, Birna credits the governance law passed in 2012 as being key. It requires boards of directors of companies with more than 50 employees to have 40% of the director seats held by women. There was little support for mandating equity, but when companies weren’t doing it on their own, the government stepped in.

“I was not one who would ever be in favor of quotas, but I changed my mind,” Birna remarked. “Why wait 100 years for things to change?”

Critical mass has made a difference, in her opinion.

“It is taking time for the culture to fully adapt,” says Birna. “I had to go so far as to ask board members which other board members they talked to between the scheduled meetings. It was clear early on that there were meetings before the meetings with the men.”

Her crisis management and strategic direction have paid off. In 2014 IslandBanki was named the best bank in Iceland by Euromoney and The Banker magazines.

Just as important to Birna, her bank is now the highest ranked by customers in all of Iceland.

Political empowerment

On Monday we met with several women in Parliament to discuss gender equity from their points of view. It was a lively exchange of ideas and opinions. It’s important to note that gender equity is regarded as a broader issue than what we might expect living in the United States. They are as concerned about the falling rate of young men going to college as they are about equal pay for women.


Parliament assembly room

In 1975 ninety percent of the women held a one-day strike to demonstrate their value in the workplace and at home. The country came to a virtual standstill. Schools, banks, newspapers, offices were shutdown until midnight on October 24th.

Message heard. The following year legislation was passed that required equal pay for equal work. They are still working to fully implement and enforce this law. We were cautioned to look at the total picture of Iceland. Yes, they have made significant strides, but it is not a perfect country. They believe they have much farther to go and they continue to move in that direction.

Constitutionally, Iceland strongly favors equal rights:

“Everyone shall be equal before the law and enjoy human rights irrespective of sex, religion, opinion, national origin, race, colour, property, birth or other status.

Men and women shall enjoy equal rights in all respects.”

There is much Icelanders admire the U.S. for, but our lack of action on gender equity is as confusing as our laws that allow people to be put to death by the government. We appear both progressive and regressive at the same time.

Questions they would ask of us:

  • Conservatives in your country want less government involvement, but they are in favor of laws that prevent women from having control over their own bodies. How do they reconcile this?
  • Why do women in the U.S. see themselves as being powerless to bring about greater change in the area of equal rights? “You are not powerless, you know.”
  • How can your Constitution not say that there must be equal rights for women and men?
  • If you know money has corrupted politics, why haven’t the laws been changed? (Politicians in Iceland would find it unseemly to ask for contributions from people!)

Meeting with ministers at Parliament

Iceland is called the most feminist country in the world and they are proud of this. Feminism to them does not conjure up pictures of aggressive man-haters, but of people working together for equal rights for everyone. The word has never become tainted in Iceland and they wonder why the U.S. stopped embracing it. “Is it because there were those who pushed back? Well, in Iceland, we believe that when this happens it means it’s even more important to work harder against the pushback.”

Women hold approximately 40% of parliamentary seats in Iceland compared to half that in the U.S. House and Senate.