Gjógv on the Faroe Islands
Gjógv on the Faroe Islands
© Arctic Council Secretariat / Kristina Bär

Erika Anne Hayfield on gender equality in the Faroe Islands and small Arctic communities

26 March 2024
An interview on the importance of context in gender equality, why mainstream gender approaches might not work in smaller communities and why it’s important to include a multitude of voices in the gender discourse.

Erika Anne Hayfield is an Associate Professor and Dean of the Faculty of History and Social Sciences at the University of the Faroe Islands. Before turning to academia and teaching, Erika worked as an advisor at the Ministry of Industry in the Faroe Islands where her responsibilities included gender equality. She was also the lead author of the chapter on migration and mobility in the Pan-Arctic Report on Gender Equality in the Arctic. In this interview she shares insights from her gender research, based on a small island society perspective. She talks about the importance of context, why mainstream gender approaches might not work in smaller communities and why it’s important to include a multitude of voices in the gender discourse.


© Erika Hayfield

In your work you speak about the contextuality of gender, could you explain what you mean by this?

Gender relations cannot be understood without taking the context into account. So, what do I mean by context? I mean place, geography, structures, history, labor market and division of labor. So, whilst we have a concept called gender equality, it is understood very differently in different places, and context allows us to understand how gender relations have evolved.

Could you explain the context of gender in the Faroe Islands?

The Faroe Islands are relatively gender traditional. For example, religion has had a greater importance to people in the Faroes compared to other Nordic countries. Why is this the case? Well, it’s likely linked to the fact that historically people were living on isolated and peripheral islands with the only resources readily available being fish, sheep, and birds. Thus, if you picture this very harsh environment it might have created a more personal form of Christianity, which became for many an all-consuming part of life, of everything people did and every decision they took. The Christian belief therefore coined the perception of men and women and their roles in society.

In addition, our geographical location and scarcity of resources also led to a large proportion of men starting to work long distance at sea from the late 1800s onwards. Until quite recently, they could be gone for more than a year at a time. So, a child might not see its father for a long time. This created a quite extreme type of gender division of labor where women stayed at home and men were at sea.

While there are still many men working long distance, technology allows people to communicate and durations at sea are usually much shorter today. Nonetheless, this division of labor has become part of the Faroese self-understanding, and we are still trying to find ways how to work with gender equality in this context.

Women’s participation in the labor market is valued, maybe even expected, but they are still viewed to be the primary caretaker at home. This leads to that more than 50% of Faroese women work part-time. Erika Anne Hayfield

© Arctic Council Secretariat / Kristina Bär

What efforts exist on the Faroe Islands to address issues related to gender equality?

According to my research, gender equality started to emerge as a political discourse on the Faroe Islands in the early 1980s. Faroese women had moved to Denmark to study and work. There they encountered the so-called Red Stocking Movement, a Danish women's rights movement, and upon coming back the women decided that the Faroe Islands needed gender equality, too.

This eventually led to our gender equality / antidiscrimination law being passed in 1994. Yet, at that time the discourse on gender was still very traditional, and the law passed only barely. There were many negative reactions from, well mostly male politicians, especially right-wing conservative politicians, and a resistance to promoting gender equality.

Today, I would say it’s not acceptable to say that one does not want gender equality, but I don't think that there’s a huge amount of effort to address gender equality either. We still have a very gender segregated labor market, similar to many other Arctic communities. Women’s participation in the labor market is valued, maybe even expected, but they are still viewed to be the primary caretaker at home. This leads to that more than 50% of Faroese women work part-time. It’s culturally not as accepted neither for men to take the role as caregiver, nor for women to sail on fishing boats if they have a family to care for. Our paternity leave, for example, is only four weeks, which is much lower than in most other Nordic countries.

My colleagues and I did a survey last year on gender equality in the Faroe Islands, about people’s attitudes and options. And the results were very clear and statistically significant: Women to a much higher degree felt that they don’t have gender quality, compared to many men participating in the survey.

Maybe we can think about alternatives which would be better suited to a small community context in which the labor market is centered around primary industries and traditionally gender-segregated workplaces. The one-size-fits-all approach from urbanized areas doesn’t necessarily work here, we need context sensitive and placed-based initiatives. Erika Anne Hayfield

© Arctic Council Secretariat / Kristina Bär

To what extend does gender equality in small communities need to be addressed differently than in larger countries?

If we think of smaller, more traditional communities, we might need to be looking at alternative ways of addressing gender equality in ways that might be amenable to smaller systems. It’s more difficult for small communities, including the Faroe Islands, to think of gender equality and the gender division of labor in a way that would be practical in an urban area. While people in urban areas tend to go to work and return home every evening, this might not be the norm in small communities.

I can give one quick example: If I for example speak to the Chair of the Fisher’s Association, he will say that men don’t need paternity leave because they are home between their trips anyway, that they can’t sail to land because someone wants to be home at night. So, is there anything else we can do? Can we think of a paternity leave which has a different format?

Maybe we can think about alternatives which would be better suited to a small community context in which the labor market is centered around primary industries and traditionally gender-segregated workplaces. The one-size-fits-all approach from urbanized areas doesn’t necessarily work here, we need context sensitive and placed-based initiatives.

Thus, if we have labor markets in the Arctic where a lot of men work long distance, then we need to ask how we can create flexibility for families. We need to have welfare systems that support families to achieve better balance in terms of division of labor and this for example includes promoting families with dual carers, earmarking parental leave for both parents.

Data collection is one big challenge in understanding the centrality of gender in Arctic societies. What type of data is needed and how could it be gathered?

That was one of our main conclusions in the Pan-Arctic Report on Gender Equality in the Arctic that we need more data. I was responsible for the chapter on migration and mobility, two very gendered issues. But as soon as I started looking for data, I realized that it’s very difficult to combine migration or mobility data with gender. There might be information available on migration but not by gender. Thus, what’s missing is the intersectional data, which would allow us to shed light on gender within a specific context.

We also need qualitative data to understand certain issues more in depth. Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I was writing an article about part-time work in the Nordic region with a focus on Greenland and the Faroe Islands. I remember trying to set up figures for Greenland and worked with a Danish scholar who was very knowledgeable about the Greenlandic labor market. He told me, ‘Erika, you are trying to compare something that is maybe not comparable.’

One cannot think of Greenland as one labor market. People working in the public sector will have a specific contract on a set number of working hours per week, but for a lot of other people, work is conceptualized differently. If you for example are subsistence hunting, your work hours might not be registered in a database and your workload will vary across the seasons.

My point here is that sometimes data is not comparable and if you want to compare issues, they require a contextual understanding. Context frames the data and place-based information is important to be able to work with the issues that the data is showing.

We are an island society, surrounded by water. This frames much of who we are, what we do and how we view the world. The sea is part of our art, our literature, our industries, and labor markets, but it's still very much a masculine space in the sense that it's a place of work and leisure for men. Erika Anne Hayfield

© Arctic Council Secretariat / Kristina Bär

You specifically emphasize that the Arctic labor markets easily become gender segregated. Why is this the case?

Gender segregation is very much linked to the types of industries that are predominant in a community. Heavy, manual-labor intensive work is usually regarded as a male domain, which creates very masculine and feminine spaces.

We are an island society, surrounded by water. This frames much of who we are, what we do and how we view the world. The sea is part of our art, our literature, our industries, and labor markets, but it's still very much a masculine space in the sense that it's a place of work and leisure for men.

This demonstrates that spaces and places become highly gender segregated in the Arctic. If we think of subsistence, for example, it’s in most cases men who tend to have very place specific knowledge, they know the hunting grounds, weather conditions, etc. So, their knowledge is very place-based.

In turn, we as women have women's knowledge if you like or experience, which might be more related to caring and tending to things at home. It’s a more transferable skill. This is one reason, and there’s research evidence, that women seem to settle better in urban environments if they've moved from a more rural environment.

But it’s also important to note that there's no reason why specific industries should be gender segregated and it’s important to voice concerns and flag issues. One example is that when industries are developed in Arctic areas, it tends to be male actors who are consulted – because they are already represented in key positions. Other voices are therefore seldom considered. This way the development discourse is reproduced in masculine terms.

[I]f we stop debating gender issues, we stop being able to have structural discussions. If more women were to withdraw from the labor market, then they will find themselves unable to be part of framing their own choices. Erika Anne Hayfield

© Arctic Council Secretariat / Kristina Bär

You urge that a sustainable approach to a gender equal Arctic requires the engagement of young people. What could be suitable ways of including young people in the gender discourse?

I think it's really important that young people set the agenda for the future. Young people need to feel that they are part of something larger than their own communities, part of the solution. They need to understand their own position and see opportunities in the Arctic, regardless of gender.

However, we need to challenge ourselves to identify the variety of gender discourses amongst young people. Gender equality tends to be a topic for more left leaning individuals. But today there’s a fair amount of young people leaning towards the right. They tend to engage in a gender backlash discourse, which is oriented towards the right of “free choice”. And I say “free choice” in inverted commas because what it means is that the discourse focuses on that it’s ok if things remain traditional, that gender equality is an ideology of few that should not be imposed on young people.

My argument is that if we stop debating gender issues, we stop being able to have structural discussions. If more women were to withdraw from the labor market, then they will find themselves unable to be part of framing their own choices.

When I speak of variety of gender discourses, I’m also thinking of the multiplicity of voices. The Arctic is becoming increasingly diverse, not least in terms of immigration. So, what does gender equality mean to Arctic immigrants? Is there only one way of thinking of gender equality, the Nordic way?

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