Editorial: It is time to deal with Estonia’s disgraceful gender pay gap

Estonia has the highest gender pay gap in Europe. In the Global Gender Gap Index 2014, Estonia is at 62, behind Thailand and just ahead of Zimbabwe. Estonian World calls the next Estonian parliament and government to pay more attention to the issue.

Estonia has, in last 23 years, taken a great pride in its achievements and become one of the most digitally savvy and forward-looking countries on earth. Estonian World has for over two years written about many great Estonian success stories. But there are issues that have constantly been brushed under the carpet in the Estonian society. One of them is the gender pay gap and the general underrepresentation of women in key positions and in the parliament.

According to the latest figures by Eurostat, the gender pay gap in Estonia was a whopping 29.9%. True, the gender pay gap exists in every country across the European Union – the analysis shows that women earned on average 16,4% less than men in 2013. Yet Estonia’s figure is almost double the average, and largest in the EU.

What’s interesting is that many other countries, which were formerly on the east side of the Iron Curtain, are doing much better when it comes to gender pay gap. For example, Slovenia has the lowest gender pay gap in Europe (3.2%). In Poland (6.4%), Croatia (7.4%), Romania (9.1%) and Lithuania (13.3%), the gender pay gap is less than the EU average.

What’s even more worrying, Estonia stands out as one of the countries where the gender pay gap has actually worsened: between 2008 and 2013, it increased by 2.3 percentage points.

The gender pay gap represents the difference between average gross hourly earnings of male paid employees and of female paid employees as a percentage of average gross hourly earnings of male paid employees. Differences between females and males in the labour market do not only concern wage discrepancies but also and along with it, the type of occupations held.

The latter fact is usually brought up as a counterargument in Estonia by those who downplay the seriousness of the gender pay gap issue – they argue that men simply work on more demanding jobs, avoiding the low-paid service sector, for instance. That may partly be true, but it fails to take into account two aspects: 1) Women in top and managerial positions tend to be paid less as well, despite the fact that they are as highly qualified (statistics shows that Estonian women are on average actually better qualified); 2) Part of the reason why only relatively few women are working in top positions in Estonia is simply because they have not been promoted, despite having necessary skills and qualifications.

Estonia’s poor showing in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index is also partly caused due to the fact that despite good educational attainment, women in Estonia have relatively little political empowerment. In the last parliament, only 24 MPs were women, out of 101, the recent elections brought only a marginal improvement when 25 women were elected. Unlike in Latvia, which currently has a female prime minister and female parliament speaker, and Lithuania, which has a female president, no female politician has ever managed to hold such positions in Estonia. The difference between its southern neighbours and Estonia reflects also in the Global Gender Gap Index – Lithuania is placed 18 positions higher, at 44, and Latvia a whopping 47 positions higher, at a very respectable 15, which puts it ahead of France and just behind Netherlands.

And what’s more, the gender gap does not only reflect in wages and top positions; there is a visible lack of female representation in the Estonian media as well. Although there is no shortage of intellectual female opinion leaders in the Estonian society, it is a rule rather than an exception that the majority of guests at the topical debates on TV and radio are usually men. This lack of female representation has repeatedly been pointed out, lately the criticism was pointed directly at ERR, the national broadcaster, but so far there hasn’t been any sign of change.

The EU has also drawn attention to Estonia’s gender pay gap, but this is clearly one area where finding a solution is in the hands of national government and society at large.

Estonian World offers concrete steps which should be taken in order to solve the issue:

1. Increase the awareness of the issue

Solving starts with acknowledging the problem. Currently, the gender gap issues have largely been ignored in the Estonian society or even ridiculed by some opinion leaders and some in the media. Involve open-minded opinion leaders from various fields – both men and women – to raise awareness. At least once a year, publish a report that measures the progress in implementing gender equality and equal pay, in comparison with other European countries. Raise the awareness that equal pay is everyone´s legal right, and how to act if you get a lower salary than your male colleagues. Create a nationwide programme for schools as well as general public.

2. Ensure equal pay for work of equal value

This publication is against unnecessary bureaucracy that would harm private enterprise, but it could be ensured that equal pay for work of equal value is implemented at least in public sector and call private sector to follow suit.

For example, Sweden has gone as far as to require employers and employees to endeavour to equalise and prevent differences in pay and other terms of employment between women and men who perform work which is to be regarded as equal or of equal value. They are also supposed to promote equal pay growth opportunities for women and men. Sweden’s Discrimination Act also requires employers to carry out a pay survey every three years in order to detect, remedy and prevent unjustified differences between women and men’s pay, terms and conditions of employment, and draw up an equal pay action plan, if employing 25 or more workers.

Provide finances for legal aid in order to support court cases against organisations paying discriminating salary for women.

3. Develop a national strategy to tackle gender segregation (unequal distribution of men and women in the occupational structure)

This means addressing the issue of low paid jobs in medicine, education and social sphere (community provided services like child care, social welfare) and rising minimum salary. Monitor every year carefully and take action accordingly.

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Cover courtesy of The Atlantic.

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About the author: Estonian World

Estonian World is a global independent online magazine, founded in London in 2012 and headquartered in Tallinn, Estonia. The magazine has editorial representations in London, New York, Toronto and Tallinn, and contributors all over the world, on every continent. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.