Can ‘Feminine’ Leadership Mend The Economic Crisis In Iceland?
Iceland’s banking and financial sectors are the latest testing grounds for whether women’s leadership makes a difference.
by Masum Momaya
Long known for its state-supported egalitarian politics, Iceland, alongside its Scandinavian neighbors, has served as a model for gender equality, particularly with regards to paid labor force participation and employment-related policies. Iceland’s rate of female labor force participation (just under 80%) nearly equals that of men (just over 80%) . Generous maternity and paternity leave and childcare provisions from the government have long facilitated men and women working in paid employment. Thus, unlike in many other places in the world, Iceland’s women have had structural support for advancing their careers – and professional women have been building their skills, experience and expertise as a result.
When Iceland’s banking system went into meltdown in October 2008, Iceland’s professional women were met with new leadership opportunities. The currency had collapsed, interest rates and inflation had skyrocketed, unemployment levels had reached record highs, both households and companies were overwhelmed by unthinkable debts, and there was general widespread public sentiment that the ruling male elite had made a big mess.
As in many other contexts in the world and throughout history, women were brought in to clean up.
Led by Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, the world’s first openly lesbian head of state, banks were nationalized and several women were promoted up the ranks or brought in to head them. Additionally, several prominent women-led financial firms emerged, espousing a new ‘feminine’ way of working that shunned ‘business as usual.’
Critics had attributed the economic downfall to a brash ‘masculine’ culture that involved buccaneering, financial engineering and reckless, shortsighted decision-making by the male elite, jeopardizing the country’s immediate and long-term economic stability; some countered that women, especially those behind the scenes, were culpable, too.
In any case, the climate was ripe for and open to what has been called a ‘feminine’ way of leading characterized by balance, transparency, fairness, social responsibility, accountability and sustainability. Some believed that women were best positioned to lead in this way because of their social roles as mothers while others invoked the symbolic and historical contributions of Viking women, who were said to “run the show” at home with wisdom, strength and clarity while their Viking men were out raping and pillaging – just as their modern day counterparts had done to Iceland’s economy.
Halla Tómasdóttir, an economist who co-founded Audur Capital, a firm seeking to bring feminine values into the traditionally male sphere of private equity, wealth management and corporate advice, describes how her company takes a different approach: "We have five core feminine values. First, risk awareness: we will not invest in things we don't understand. Second, profit with principles: we like a wider definition so it is not just economic profit, but a positive social and environmental impact. Third, emotional capital: when we invest, we do an emotional due diligence - or check on the company - we look at the people, at whether the corporate culture is an asset or a liability. Fourth, straight talking: we believe the language of finance should be accessible, and not part of the alienating nature of banking culture. Fifth, independence: we would like to see women increasingly financially independent, because with that comes the greatest freedom to be who you want to be, but also unbiased advice." 
‘Masculine’ versus ‘Feminine,’ not Men versus Women
In spite of the appeal of doing things differently, some Icelandic women are cautious to attribute specific values as intrinsic to men and women. For example, Elín Jónsdóttir, a managing director of an investment firm, points out, “It’s dangerous to stereotype. These so-called masculine values are common in women as well, and the variability within each group is much larger than the variability between groups.” Those who counter this point out that adding women to the mix of those in leadership positions widens the range of opinions and perspectives that are considered and thus results in more sound decisions. It is ironic that this argument for diversity and difference is predicated in some assumption of sameness.
Others worry that the appointed women are set up to fall off a “glass cliff.” Under this metaphor, women are appointed to top jobs in crisis situations that are nearly impossible to fix – and thus set up to fail, setting back the case for women’s leadership. This has already occurred in one instance, where a woman who was promoted to head a national bank has already been asked to step down. Kristin Petursdóttir, Tómasdóttir’s business partner, points out "It's not the role of women to clean up the mess. It's so important that we have a system where women and men work together." 
Critical Acts, not just Critical Mass
The changing opportunities for women’s leadership in Iceland once again raise longstanding questions and debates about whether having more women in leadership positions results in gains for women, the promotion of women’s rights and ultimately, a free and just society. Setting aside the ascent of conservative women, which give the false illusion of symbolic victory while working to reverse gains in women’s rights, questions and debates about whether more women in leadership positions results in gains for women have been considered in many other contexts, with varying conclusions.
For example, Sheila Kawamara-Mishambi, a former Member of Parliament from Uganda argues, “The numbers matter. Because, if you are two in [government], you won’t change anything. Two against 200, what are you? Nothing. You just get sucked in. Before you know it, after five years you are a man in a woman’s skin. So, we need the numbers.” 
Nina Raaum, a scholar at the University of Bergen in Norway, has studied this phenomenon in Iceland’s Scandinavian neighbors, where gender quotas have helped bring a critical mass of women into business and politics. She has concluded that “Obtaining a critical number [of women] does not by necessity lead to uninterrupted progress in women's political integration through the different institutional thresholds in the parliamentary system. Critical numbers count, but so do critical acts.”  Some go further to argue that these critical acts must transform patriarchal structures and the oppressive workings of power in order to truly make - and be seen as - making a difference.
In the case of Iceland, according to feminist Halldóra Traustadóttir from the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, it is difficult to assess whether women have yet been able to make significant differences, especially given that criticism in the current economic climate is heightened. One thing seems certain, though, to the extent that excessive risk-taking and recklessness are associated with the “masculine,” people in Iceland are ready to welcome the “feminine,” if not women themselves, and the balance it may bring to the economy.
Iceland's Economic Meltdown (Worldfocus Podcast)
"Does the Crisis Need a Feminine Touch?" (BBC Podcast)
 Raaum, Nina C. (2005). "Gender equality and political representation: A nordic comparison." West European Politics, 1743-9655, 28:4, p 872 – 897.