News and Events

Anne McNamara 23 December 2020

Women Who Build: Kristin Gestsdottir - Standing up to inequality

Welcome to Building Women. The place where we celebrate and learn from trailblazing women who are building innovative businesses and careers. This is a space to understand the power of overcoming obstacles. Because overcoming adversity is what ultimately builds success. Every month I will be asking a new interviewee what they have overcome to build the life that they have now.

Today I’m delighted to be talking to Kristin Gestsdottir, Head of Procurement at Isavia, the national airport of Iceland.

“You are a waste of air!” For many of us, hearing such words coming from a colleague would be enough for our self-confidence to take a nosedive. Today’s interviewee, Kristin Gestsdottir, has had to deal with similar insults at every step of her career; and this snide remark has hardly been the most brutal.

And we’re talking about a woman who’s currently the Head of Procurement at Isavia - Iceland’s state-owned airport and air navigation service provider. Managing $100m budgets in a country that has been the frontrunner on the Global Gender Gap Index for 11 years straight, Kristin is a strong advocate for women and a staunch supporter of workplace equality, diversity, and transparency.

Her way to the top hasn’t been easy. In the beginning, she almost turned down a golden job opportunity in procurement, haunted by self-doubt. Fortunately, a wise mentor encouraged her to forge ahead. Along the way, Kristin has developed an unbeatable mindset to confront double standards, everyday sexism, and continuous mansplaining, all of them common even in a forward-thinking country such as Iceland.

As we talk, Kristin tells of her lifelong struggle with self-doubt and insecurities and explains why she sees strength in being vulnerable. She also unveils how companies abuse women’s empowerment and suggests how to change it by following other fearless women’s footsteps.

10 things I’ve learned from Kristin:

‘Good’ is no reason for complacency

“If you look at the World Economic Forum statistics, Iceland is doing ‘good’ in gender equality. We’ve been a forerunner for 11 years straight. But we can do so much better. I have looked at the numbers from our National Statistical Institute of Iceland for builders and contractors, and there are only 7% of women sitting at the Board of Directors or holding CEO positions. So yes, we’re cool and we’re good, and we get it [gender equality], but we’re only half-way.”

The fight isn't over yet

“We did a tender for a project management team. One of the things that we wanted to know from the companies bidding on this project was to tell us about how they embrace diversity. Most of the time, the bidding companies didn’t score very well because usually, the people writing answers to these questions were men. There were a lot of foreign companies, e.g., from the USA, which haven’t come such a long way as we have in Iceland, and they just didn’t get it.”

Fake empowerment is a thing

“My biggest question is why do we need empowerment training programs or strategies for women. What is this telling us? Does that mean that executives do not believe in the individuals themselves? Do we need programs to help them to rise above where they are right now? Who is deciding about and teaching these programs? Are they being measured or do they just run? I want to see the numbers.”

Women aren't the problem

“So many times, we pinpoint that women are the problem, or women are weak, and we need to fix women. But if you have a flower, you can keep giving it water, but if it doesn’t have any light, it will not grow. Why do we need to change women? Maybe they are not growing because the environment isn’t changing?”

A Hobson's choice is no choice

“I spoke to Northeast women and the picture I got was that almost all of them have given up their dreams about family and weren’t married because they were constantly working. Their lives were their jobs. But when you looked at men within the same companies, it was so sad to see the difference. Almost none of the women were carrying a wedding band, and almost all the men were, and they had families and children to go back home to. Why do women have to choose but still men don’t?”

Yes, you can't!

“Women in Iceland are used to working very hard. Maybe it’s the Viking within us, but we do it all. But doing it all isn’t good because it’s just going to lead us to burnout.”

Don't resist change

“Leaders today in organizations want gender equality. But to do it, it’s going to take time, effort, money, and they need to make a decision that they want to make the change. And it can be uncomfortable. Because people get insecure about changes. We always want to see what’s going to happen next. And with huge changes, you don’t always know the next step.”

Be the change!

“In most cases, people want equal treatment and gender equality, but they haven’t been able to make the change. Because if you ask a person, “Are you for gender equality?” in 99% of cases, they’ll answer, “Yes, of course.” But then again, these are just words. You need to put in work; you need to be the change to make the change and to set a precedent.”

It isn't the power, stupid!

“When I stepped into the public procurement field, I wasn’t afraid of being vulnerable. I was new to this, I really wanted to learn to become better. When I came and raised questions [...], I experienced people going in defense, thinking, ‘She’s questioning why we’re doing it this way. Is she taking another position that we’re not familiar with? Where is she going with this? Who is this little girl?” This came from a senior person, and obviously, I heard it. This shows me that he thought that he was losing power. But for me, I don’t want this to be a debate over power. I don’t want someone to lose or to win. I want us to combine our knowledge and experience, goals, and aims and do it together.”

Start with trust

“You never do something as an individual; you do it as a team. And if you look at the procurement team, software team, whatever team, you need to build trust. You need to build respect and core human qualities. Once you do that, you’ll be able to build something bigger, a team that’s going to take you somewhere, walking the same path, towards the same goal.”