An Embarrassing Scandal Hits World's Most Gender Equal Society

(Bloomberg) -- Iceland is the world’s most gender equal society. But this week, it was dragged into a sordid political scandal suggesting blatant sexism is rife inside the country’s parliament.

An ex-prime minister and several other lawmakers were caught on tape using lurid, expletive-laced and sexually charged language to describe their female colleagues.

Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, an opposition lawmaker who was once prime minister until he was forced out for allegedly hiding his family’s wealth from tax authorities, was the most prominent among those taped at a bar across the street from the parliament in Reykjavik on the evening of Nov. 20. He was in the company of a former foreign minister, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, among others.

The recording, which was made by a guest at the bar, includes lawmakers from the newly formed Center Party and the People’s Party. The group can be heard making fun of the #MeToo movement and comparing a disabled former member of parliament to “an animal.”

The tapes, which quickly went viral in Iceland, have sparked widespread condemnation across the country. On Saturday, the celebration of 100 years of independence from Denmark will be mixed with a protest march against the lawmakers at the center of the scandal.

The episode is a sobering reality check for a nation that has worked hard to eradicate sexism. But Stefania Oskarsdottir, a professor of politics at the University of Iceland, says the level of outrage across the country also shows that “the power of women has increased in society, not to mention in politics.”

The politicians captured on tape -- all members of the opposition -- quickly came under pressure to resign. Late on Friday, it emerged that two Center Party lawmakers behind some of the most extreme remarks had taken a leave of absence. On Saturday, the People’s Party fired two lawmakers in connection with the incident, though they will remain in parliament as independent members.

Iceland has had a long history of leading the world in gender equality. It was first to elect a female head of state in the form of a president and recently approved one of the world’s most ambitious laws aimed at eliminating the gender pay gap. Iceland’s current prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, took part in a recent protest against wage inequality and sexual harassment.

Gunnlaugsson had been working on restoring his reputation after resigning as a result of the Panama Papers scandal of 2016 (newspapers revealed that he had concealed his family assets in an offshore account). Sveinsson, for his part, had championed gender equality while in power.

The tape provides some “insight into the mindset of certain people,” Oskarsdottir said. But there’s “less tolerance” for such outbursts today, she said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.