Empowering Change and Building Women’s Power: On the Ground at the Reykjavík Global Forum

The Reykjavík Global Forum convenes women leaders to share solutions on how to further advance society towards gender equity and grow the number of women in leadership positions.

The sixth annual Reykjavík Global Forum, hosted by the government and Parliament of Iceland last month, convened more than 500 people from 80 countries, creating a diverse and dynamic platform to address critical global issues and build women’s power.

I had the honor of representing RepresentWomen and our mission at the forum and was thrilled to be part of the delegation led by Susannah Wellford, of Running Start alums, who gave a terrific presentation and enriched and diversified the program in many ways.

Running Starts alums presenting at the Reykjavik Global Forum: Caroline Hoover, Sherra Bennet, Alexis Williams and Lyssa Schei Davids.

The forum began with an informative tour of Parliament, where women hold 48 percent of seats, followed by a reception at the home of the president of Iceland, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and his accomplished wife, author Eliza Reid. Highlights of the gathering included Icelandic pancakes, opening remarks from co-founders of the forum Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir and Silvana Koch-Mehrin, and a welcome from co-chairs Ashley Judd and Adela Raz.

From left: Eliza Reid, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, Ashley Judd and friends.

‘Power, Together for Leadership’

The prime minister of Iceland, Katrin Jakobsdottir, opened the forum with women colleagues from the government who discussed their experiences working together even though their positions on policy differ. This conversation about women’s leadership provided the perfect introduction to a presentation on The Reykjavík Index for Leadership, which analyzes how men and women are viewed as leaders.

Most G7 countries have seen stagnant or declining scores in the perception of women’s leadership since 2018.

The U.K. leads the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) with a score of 82—showing a five-point increase since the launch of the Index in 2018. Italy has also made noteworthy progress, improving by six points. 

This year the forum incorporated data from the Nordic countries for the first time—Iceland’s score of 92 makes it an interesting case study of what institutional and cultural factors have led to such low levels of attitudinal barriers for women in Iceland, and if they can be replicated and adapted for use elsewhere. It was sobering to learn that overall, most G7 countries have seen stagnant or declining scores in the perception of women’s leadership since 2018. 

Focus on Four Action Items

While the index offered a compelling argument for why work is still needed to advance women’s leadership, a session led by Christy Tanner, senior advisor to the Reykjavik Global Forum, provided a terrific roadmap for how to advance women’s leadership.

Tanner reported on her work with the Reykjavik Global Action Advisory Board, which led to the development of a new strategy that is focused on the Reykjavík Action Items that serve as powerful tools to transform data into action. These policy initiatives include: 

  • equal pay
  • equal representation
  • equal parental leave
  • ending gender-based violence

All are critically important for building women’s political power and leadership.

“We encourage international women leaders to focus on four key actions to promote equality in the world: equal pay, a more equal share of the sexes in decision-making, equal parental leave and actions to end gender-based violence,” said Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir.

Representation Matters

Silvana Koch-Mehrin, founder and president of Women Political Leaders (WPL), moderated a panel of women elected officials including: Camila Crescimbeni, member of Parliament, Argentina; Donna Dasko, senator, Senate of Canada; and Maria Rachel J. Arenas, member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines. They discussed the impact of increasing women’s representation and leadership.

Koch-Mehrin introduced Representation Matters—a new initiative from WPL that is designed to elevate the imperative for women’s representation and leadership across all sectors: 

“Do women still need to justify why their leadership matters? Do we need to collect, analyse, showcase data that marks women leaders’ impact? The benefit for all of society, when more women are in power?” said Silvana Koch-Mehrin, President and Founder of WPL.

She continued, “The answer is: Yes, we do. Still in 2023, we need to provide proof that representation matters. Stereotypes and barriers specific to women mean that they today do not have the same rights as men. Women are a minority in political leadership. That matters hugely, as it is political leadership that decides on laws and regulations, that decides if women have the same rights as men.” 

Uncertain Progress Toward Sustainable Development Goals for Gender

Clear goals were set by the United Nations in 2015 for women’s economic and political equality, as this piece from U.N. Women explains. But as the midway point nears on the path to 2030, it’s increasingly evident that women still face structural barriers that impede progress toward the sustainable development goals on gender.

Vice president for girls and women strategy at the United Nations Foundation, Michelle Milford Morse, led a lively panel discussion on the strategies necessary to address and overcome the barriers that women face and speed progress toward global gender equality. Panelists for this terrific conversation included: Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir, chair and co-founder of the Reykjavik Global Forum; Tea Trumbic, manager of women, business and the Law at the World Bank Group; and Lopa Banerjee, director of the Civil Society Division at U.N. Women.

Michelle Milford Morse with an attendee in Reykjavik.

Lessons Learned: Retaining Women’s Power

My dear friend Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders, spoke about strategies for retaining women in power, along with Tarja Halonen who served as the president of Finland from 2002 to 2012; Dalia Grybauskaitė, who served as president of Lithuania from 2009 to 2019; and Simonetta Sommaruga, who served as president of the Swiss Confederation from 2015 to 2020, on a panel chaired by Rick Zednik, a WPL advisor. 

Former women presidents with Laura Liswood and Rick Zednik.

While there were many sage strategies offered by these incredible women leaders, Laura Liswood noted that the women leaders share “a sense of humor, a thick skin, courage, and a passion for what it is that they’re doing. And that’s what keeps them in the game.”

She also quipped that “women are like snowflakes, one alone may melt, but together we can stop traffic”—which reflects a sentiment shared by many: We are stronger when we work together.

RepresentWomen advisor Laura Liswood with Running Start CEO and RepresentWomen board member Susannah Wellford.

Celebrating Our Shared History

The forum ended with an moving awards ceremony, a cameo appearance by former Irish president Mary Robinson, and a tribute to the women who organized the women’s strike in Reykjavik. This award went initially to the women who led the strike in 2023 but they, like good women organizers, suggested a celebration of the women who led the original strike in Iceland in 1975. The presentation of the award was accompanied by a rousing round of the Nordic folk song Afram Stelpur, which was rallying cry for women strikers.

Here is a translation I found online: 

“In sight there is now freedom

And it could have been sooner

Now women mass together

and carry signs of freedom

the hour is upon us

let’s all stand hand in hand

and firmly stand our ground

even though many want to go backwards

and others stand in place

we’ll never accept that.”

Forum co-host Ashley Judd with Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who became the first democratically elected female head of state when elected president of Iceland in 1980.

Women’s Power Strengthens Democracy

Despite examples of setbacks reported in the Reykjavík Index and other research studies, the forum was filled with energy and commitment to advancing gender equality, through the Reykjavík Action Items and many conversations about strategies to build women’s power. This collective dedication underscores the reality that we all understand the urgency of addressing gender inequality, and shows how powerful a global community can be when united by a common cause.

To take action and keep pushing the needle on gender balance in the United States, it’s important to examine what is working in countries like Iceland to address attitudinal and structural barriers in both the private and public sectors, and consider how those strategies can be adapted and replicated in countries like the United States. 

The momentum sparked at this event is a testament to the value of doing this work in community, and building a movement dedicated to empowering women leaders. Through collective efforts, we can turn the Reykjavík Action Items into a global reality and work towards representative, equitable, empowered and resilient democracies around the globe.

Sweet treats, candle light to brighten the short days, and soft guitar melodies were all clear signals that the Reykjavik Global Forum is dedicated to building the spaces for women to come together to bridge divides, build relationships, and blaze a path to women’s equality.

Up next:

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Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen and a founding board member of the ReflectUS coalition of non-partisan women’s representation organizations. Terrell is an outspoken advocate for innovative rules and systems reforms to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States. Terrell and her husband Rob Richie helped to found FairVote—a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice and a truly representative democracy. Terrell has worked on projects related to women's representation, voting system reform and democracy in the United States and abroad.