Pay gap: Is it time for Kenyan women to go on strike the Iceland way?

Staff at their workplace. For 14 years in a row, the World Economic Forum has ranked Iceland as the most gender-equal country.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • Thousands of women in Iceland, including Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdóttir, went on strike to demand for equal pay and an end to GBV.
  • The first kvennafrí happened in 1975 where about 90 per cent of Iceland's women workforce stopped working for one day.
  • Is it time for Kenya to go Iceland's way and strike to demand equal pay

Late last year, tens of thousands of women in Iceland, including the Prime Minister ((PM) Katrin Jakobsdóttir, went on strike to demand for equal pay and an end to gender-based violence.

According to Associated Press, the PM said “she would stay home as part of the strike and expected other women in her Cabinet would do the same.”

The international media said the strike known as kvennafrí in Icelandic, translated as ‘women's day off’, is the first full-day women's strike to happen in the country but the second in a span of 48 years.

The first kvennafrí happened in 1975 where about 90 per cent of Iceland's women workforce stopped working for one day, to show the importance of women to the economy.  

The strike yielded fruits.

According to BBC, following the strike, the country's parliament passed an equal pay law. Further, former Icelandic president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir told the BBC in 2015 that the 1975 strike was "the first step for women's emancipation in Iceland," which paved the way for her to become the first woman to be democratically elected head of state in the world in 1980.

In last year’s 24-hour work hiatus, Associated Press reported schools, shops, banks and Iceland’s famous swimming pools were shut.

In the newsrooms, there were all-male news teams announcing shutdowns across the country. The public transport was delayed, hospitals were understaffed and hotel rooms were uncleaned.

Iceland is one of the smallest countries in the world. By January 1, 2023, it had a population of 387,758, according to Statistics Iceland.


For 14 years in a row, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has ranked it as the most gender-equal country in its annual Global Gender Gap Index, which measures economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival as well as political empowerment.

In 2022, countries’, globally, recorded a drop in the index due to the socio-economic impact of Covid-19. In that year, Kenya performed better than Iceland in economic participation and opportunity.

The East African country came sixth with a 0.811 score, meaning near gender parity in the development dimension, while the European nation was 11th with a 0.803 index.

In 2023, Iceland outran Kenya. It was in 14th position with a score of 0.796 compared to Kenya’s 16th ranking with a 0.791 score.

According to Statistics Iceland, the unadjusted gender pay gap in Iceland was 9.1 per cent in 2022, a drop from 10.2 per cent in 2021.

Unadjusted gender wage gaps refer to the earnings of men minus the earnings of women.

The gap is, however, dependent on economic activity. It is widest at the financial and insurance activities where the wage gap stood at 26.2 per cent and least at electricity, gas, steam, and air conditioning supply at 4.1 per cent.

In 2017, WEF indicated that women in Kenya got paid Sh45 less for every Sh100 a man earned.

Equal pay

Let's put this into context. If a man is earning Sh20,000, it means, a woman is taking home, Sh11,000 - a cool Sh9,000 less.

A recent study by UN Women Africa found women are currently earning Sh82 for every Sh100, a man gets paid.  This means, there has been an improvement by Sh27 in six years.

In this case, for every Sh20,000 a man earns, a woman pockets Sh16,400 translating to Sh3,600 less. Yet, the men and women live in the same economy where the cost of goods has hit the roof.

A Sh16,400 gets depleted at the blink of an eye owing to the fact that women spend 42 per cent of their salary on household expenditure compared to 28 per cent for men, according to a study by Max Life Insurance, an Indian-based life insurance company.

So, is it time to go Iceland's way and strike to demand equal pay?

Esther Kerubo, a fruit vendor along Latema Road in Nairobi’s city centre says she doesn’t support a strike but rather a dialogue.

Si watu tu waongee. Hata ukigoma kufanya kazi itasaidiaje? Mimi siwezi. Watoto wangu walale njaa?  (Let the people dialogue. How will a strike help? I can’t. My children to sleep hungry? ,” she tells Nation.Africa.

David (preferred his first name) who works for a commercial bank in Kenya says equal pay can only be determined if all factors are the same for the man and woman.

“Are you considering the experience?” he asked in regard to having equal pay for equal work done.

“If your (referring to a woman,) experience is equal to that of a man, then you have the right to strike,” he says.

Anne Makena, a business consultant thinks otherwise.

“Remuneration is pegged on various factors such as experience, level of education and number of years you have been in employment, and even your level of exposure,” she says.

“We may have the same level of education but I have more experience, clearly the pay cannot be the same. But there are other silent factors such as favouritism and sex-for-promotion. Unless those are addressed, going on strike won’t solve much.”

George Kamau, who runs a computer shop along Moi Avenue has a similar a view similar to Anne’s.

Patriarchal traditions

“I have a degree in information technology. In 2019 soon after graduation, I got employed in a software development company and my boss had a diploma but had worked there for like 15 years. Would I ask for a higher pay because I have a degree?” he asks.

“So if I was to go on strike then it wouldn't be about equal pay but pay based on productivity.

Experts too, differ in their advice.

While speaking to Nation.Africa Angela Nguku, executive director of White Ribbon Alliance, an organisation that fights for gender justice, describes unequal pay as a systemic issue that needs not just a national strike but a “Wangari Maathai” to bring it to its knees.

The late Wangari was a brave and fearless environmentalist who defended forests and forest land fiercely. She was badly beaten and jailed for her protests against President Daniel Arap Moi's government.

Angela asks:  "Who is willing to take on the baton?"

"Yes, we can go to the streets but we have to be prepared for the consequences."

A campaign to eliminate disparities in pay is not a one-time event but one which requires consistency, she argues.

"To have a sustained campaign means we have to plan and plan," she says.

She cites three ways Kenya can achieve gender equal pay; equipping women with negotiation skills to bargain for a pay commensurate with their worth, abolishing discriminatory policies at the workplace, and sensitising the public to do away with patriarchal traditions that suppress women in all spheres of life.

Lucy Mitei, a transformative gender specialist advises against going the Iceland way.

“For the Kenyan context, we have to be careful with how we use certain measures. For Iceland, they have made progress and have good laws that protect women in employment, including not getting fired for exercising their rights to demand equal pay," she tells Nation.Africa.

She continues: "TSC (Teachers Service Commission) has recently interdicted teachers in northern Kenya for refusing to go to work because of insecurity. Imagine what companies will do if women go on strike."

She proposes using other approaches to continue “to advocate for equal pay for equal work and sensitise employers on issues of equality and equity, empower women employees to demand the right to equal pay, empower women to venture into male-dominated spaces, (and) sensitise companies to publish equal pay reports.”