Development & Aid, Europe, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

Mind the Women’s Business

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Mar 24 2012 (IPS) - “We want to hear each others’ stories on how we have coped with changes, how we have got to where we are now and thus how we can be an inspiration to others,” says Anna Loa Olafsdottir, one of the people behind a group of women in southwest Iceland who call themselves SKASS.

SKASS (Association of Dynamic, Serious and Creative Women) from Sudurnes region, southwest Iceland, was set up in the spring of 2010 to “encourage women to let their dreams be true, whether this is to do with business, establishing a company or something entirely different,” Olafsdottir tells IPS. “Whether this is different to how men operate is something that every woman must answer herself.”

FKA (Icelandic Association of Women Entrepreneurs) is a group of women entrepreneurs in Reykjavik. Founded in the spring of 1999, FKA grants annual awards to individual women or women running companies.

The awards announced in January went to an 83-year-old woman who opened a shop in 1965 and still works there; to a new human resources company called Attentus run by three women with the aim of providing personnel services to companies; to a woman who now runs a highly successful whale-watching business; and to a company called that is now run by two women who bought out the company in late 2010 in conjunction with an investment fund called Audi 1.

FKA’s decision to reward the company has been controversial. Critics have pointed out that closed two out of its four locations last year and that many women lost their jobs as a result.

One critic is Dominique Pledel Jonsson, who had been a member of FKA since 2005 until deciding to resign because of FKA’s decision to reward “I believe that women can offer a different business world to men,” she tells IPS. “But women are best at everything they do only if they do so on their own grounds, not if they mimic men and become as ruthless and greedy as them or form women’s clubs instead of old boys’ clubs.”

Audur Capital is one of the few financial entities in Iceland which survived the banking crisis without losing money for their customers. It was set up in 2007 by two highly placed women in the financial sector who wanted to create a financial services provider that acted differently to the norm – one which set responsible behaviour, candour and feminine values above short-term profit and greed.

When developing their business model, the firm used a 2007 report published by Barclays that quotes research carried out by a women-oriented research body called Catalyst, which showed that companies with the highest female representation on their senior management teams enjoyed a 34 percent higher return on equity than did firms with the lowest representation.

One of their main offerings is Audur 1, a private equity fund that primarily seeks investment opportunities in businesses with a high growth potential that are managed or owned by women. For instance, Audur 1 has substantial investments in

The Innovation Centre Iceland has set up a 15-week course called Brautargengi for women who have a business idea in mind and want help bringing it to fruition. The course involves 75 hours of class time, but in addition participants are expected to spend at least 10 hours a week on developing their pet project.

About 20 women attend each course in Reykjavik, but fewer attend those held outside the capital. Selma Dogg Sigurjonsdottir, project manager for the courses outside Reykjavik, says that “women come with all sorts of ideas: design, tourism, various kinds of manufacturing and other service-oriented projects.”

In 2010, researchers at the University of Iceland carried out a study on the effectiveness of Brautargengi, in which all participants who attended a Brautargengi course between 2001 and 2009 were contacted. “The results showed that 55 percent of those who replied had got a company running, 19 percent were developing a business idea and only 26 percent were doing something else,” Sigurjonsdottir told IPS.

Dagny Reykjalin, a graphics and web designer, established the design and advertising company Blek in 2010 after taking the Brautargengi course in business administration in Akureyri, North Iceland. “After two years in operation, Blek has formed a well- established client base from all around the country as well as overseas,” she says.

Reykjalin is in touch with others from her course who have already set up businesses. One set up a photography studio, another an architect business, while a third, Bjarkey Sigurdardottir, is a soprano singer who sings at weddings, funerals and christenings.

But some women are not satisfied with the current situation or the options open for women who want to set themselves up in business. One of these is retired social worker, Gudrun Jonsdottir, who was one of the founders of a feminist political party, the Women’s List. The party was set up 40 years ago but has now been absorbed into the Social Democratic Alliance, one of the ruling parties in Iceland.

Jonsdottir explains that “the number of women in politics has certainly increased, which is also seen in the increasing number of women who run companies or who are in start-up companies, but it is exceedingly rare for these women to threaten, preach and try to change the existing system, or to lay down the foundations of values which to my mind consist of feminist thinking in which caring, joint responsibility, empowerment, decentralisation of power and opposition to both ever-increasing consumerism and economic growth are core values.

“I feel that we women now are at a dead end, trusting in state feminism which I feel is based on legally granting women the same rights as men. These are human rights, but I want us to aim higher, towards overturning society’s values.”

For the third year running, Iceland tops all other countries on the Global Gender Gap Index, ahead of Norway, Finland and Sweden. However, when it comes to economic participation and opportunity, Iceland is only ranked 24 on the list.

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