15 minutes with Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir

As a child she wanted to be a surgeon or a rock star. But after saying yes to every challenge that came her way, she ended up leading her country instead.

“It’s that white house over there,” said the communications director.

“The one with the lights on upstairs?”

“Yes. Right across from H&M.”

We were standing by the window of a conference center watching daybreak over Reykjavik. I was in the Icelandic capital to report on the global forum of women leaders and was looking for directions to the Icelandic prime minister’s office.

Luckily, the main landmarks of this city, with its population of 122,000, are all within a stone’s throw of each other.

An hour later, I was sitting in the foyer of the white house, sipping sparking water and wondering whether I was giving off the impression of someone who routinely interviews heads of state.

I didn’t have much time to practice nonchalance though, because the prime minister came out almost immediately.

“Hello,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m Katrin. We have 15 minutes.”

In the end, it was 16 and she still thanked me for keeping to the allotted time.

“She’s German,” said the communications director, by way of explanation.

This is half true. I am also Irish, but because prime ministers tend to be busy people, I decided to engineer my questions with Teutonic precision instead of Irish charm. Here is what I learned in the quarter of an hour I spent with Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir:

On her childhood ambition:

“I remember wanting to be a surgeon. And I also wanted to be a rock star. Definitely not a prime minister.” It was the habit of saying yes to any challenge that came her way that led her to the top.

On how Iceland became a leader in gender equality:

“We had a very strong women’s movement coming forward, for example fighting for reproductive rights: the right for abortion. In the early 80s, we had an all-women’s party …We have made it a mainstream idea.”

Iceland's prime minister, Katrin JakobsdottirIceland’s prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir

On climate change:

“The biggest security threat on the Arctic is the climate crisis … A lot of people are stuck in what I call very traditional ideas of security. I think this security threat is more real and I think it demands different methods than the traditional ones.”

On female leadership:

“When we think about security and peace in the world, we have seen that women are often key instigators of peace in our society. But they are often also the first victims of war.”

On the influence of social media on politics:

“Populism is rising because everyone is just digging down in their own echo chambers in the social media world.”

On what can be done about it:

“We need to somehow regularly take a deep breath and think: Maybe not everything I think is right and what he thinks is wrong. We have to make compromises. We have to put ourselves in a position to see the other side. And I think it’s a very healthy thing not just for politicians but for every person to do that.”

On the fourth industrial revolution:

When we look at the Icelandic labor market, we see that jobs traditionally held by women will be less affected than jobs traditionally held by men, which is something to think about. We also see that for some reason boys are not doing as well as girls in our education system.”

On what we’re missing:

“We need to think about gender equality from both sides. And I think part of the discussion about populism and anti-globalization is the fact that we’re not taking into consideration the different needs of men and women. It’s always a delicate thing to do because if you talk about boys then people say: ‘we should be talking about girls.’ And if you talk about girls: ‘we should be talking about boys’ … The best decisions are made with both men and women at the table.”

It’s difficult to argue with that last sentiment, I thought as I made my way past H&M and back toward the conference center.

After all, whether it’s the horrors of climate change, the Frankenstein-like rise of social media or the rampant rise of populism, the biggest challenges of our time respect neither the boundaries of nation nor gender.