From the Guardian After the crash, Iceland’s women lead the rescue
Icelandic women are … more likely to be thinking about how to put right the mess their men have made of the banking system than about cooking them comfort food. The tiny nation, with a population of just over 300,000 people, has been overwhelmed by an economic disaster that is threatening its very survival. But for a generation of fortysomething women, the havoc is translating into an opportunity to step into the positions vacated by the men blamed for the crisis, and to play a leading role in creating a more balanced economy, which, they argue, should incorporate overtly feminine values.
The ruling male elite is scarcely in a position to argue. The krona has collapsed; interest rates and inflation have soared; companies and households which have borrowed in foreign currency are overwhelmed by their debts and unemployment is at record levels. An exodus of young people is feared from the capital only recently held up as a centre of cutting-edge cool. Walking along Laugavegur, touted until a year or so ago as the Bond Street of Reykjavik, the gloom is palpable.
The idea that Reykjavik, an attractive, low-rise provincial place, could be a financial nerve centre on a par with the gleaming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and Wall Street now seems utterly absurd. Over the past 10 years, however, little Iceland became a test-bed for the new economic order. Led by businessmen such as Baugur boss Jón Asgeir Jóhannesson, a nation previously best known for cod and hot springs reinvented itself as an Atlantic tiger. The Icelanders bought stakes in huge tracts of the British high street, including House of Fraser, Whistles and Karen Millen. Their banks were equally buccaneering, adopting free market reforms with gusto and moving with relish into financial engineering. The upshot: they now owe at least six times the country’s income for 2008 and have been taken into state hands.
Unlike in the UK, Iceland’s women are at the forefront of the clean-up. The crisis led to the downfall of the government and the prime minister’s residence – which resembles a slightly over-sized white dormer bungalow – is now occupied by Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, an elegant 66-year-old lesbian who is the world’s first openly gay premier. When she lost a bid to lead her party in the 1990s, she lifted her fist and declared: “My time will come.” Her hour has now arrived – and the same is true for a cadre of highly accomplished businesswomen.
Prominent among them are Halla Tómasdóttir and Kristin Petursdóttir, the founders of Audur Capital, who have teamed up with the singer Björk to set up an investment fund to boost the ravaged economy by investing in green technology. Petursdóttir, a former senior banking executive, and Tómasdóttir, the former managing director of the Iceland Chamber of Commerce, decided just before the crunch to set up a firm bringing female values into the mainly male spheres of private equity, wealth management and corporate advice.