Gender Equality in Estonia (3)

Commissioner Mari-Liis Sepper Photo: Courtesy Ministry of Social Affairs
10/18/2010 9:17 AM
Category: Culture

Throughout the largest companies in Europe, women hold just 11 percent of seats on boards of directors. In Estonia, it is 6 percent. Estonia also has the highest gender pay gap in the EU. Look to the next few years for case law to be established on the subject, says Gender Equality Commissioner Mari-Liis Sepper. 

A foreign columnist once published an essay in Eesti Ekspress entitled “The Best Man for the Job is a Woman,” where he sang the virtues - from a western point of view - of employing Estonian women. He found them more productive, more reliable, and just better employees in general. Has the Estonian marketplace come around to see women in the same way? Or how would you describe the current status of women in the workplace?

I am afraid there are several indicators which do not confirm that female workers are considered equally valuable – let alone better than male workers – in the eyes of the employer. 
Parenthood has traditionally had a long-term impact on women’s participation in the labor market. Eurostat data from 2008 on the difference in employment rates with the presence of a child under the age of 12 and without the presence of children shows that Estonia ranks among countries where the negative impact of parenthood on female employment is higher by 15 percent.
It is well known that we have the highest gender pay gap in the EU (it exceeds 25 percent in two EU countries – Austria and Estonia, in latter exceeding 30 percent). The Estonian labor market is highly segregated when it comes to gender. In 2008 Estonia faced high segregation in occupations [legislators, clerks, service workers, etc.] and one of the highest levels in the EU of segregation in [economic] sectors. Consequently, women are under-represented in certain private sector areas that are important for economic growth. 
By the way, the positive example that you bring may also allude to the fact that women are more worried about their position in the labor market and therefore tend to be more “loyal” to their employer. It is a popular perception in Estonia that a woman has to do the same work that a man does twice better to get the same recognition in the form of a promotion, salary, etc.   
How far from the European standard is the Estonian marketplace in terms of women occupying key positions of responsibility? There are examples trotted out occasionally in the local media of women in positions of power (Anne Mere of Rakvere Lihakombinaat, the editors-in-chief of Estonia’s two major dailies are both women, ministers of parliament, and there are others). Would you consider these women tokens? Or is there something more going on?
According to a recent study by European Commission, More women in senior positions. Key to economic stability and growth (2010), the imbalance at the senior level persists across Europe. Among the largest companies listed on the stock exchanges across Europe, men account for 89 percent of board members and women just 11 percent. Estonian numbers are even lower: 94 and 6 percent, respectively. 
The women mentioned leading big companies in Estonia are good examples, role models who are showing other women, and more importantly the younger generation, that prestigious, high-level positions can be held successfully by women, and that decision-making is not primarily the task and the privilege of men. For example, the European Network of Women in Decision-making in Politics and the Economy has discussed role models as a tool to promote the advancement of women. 
We have not always been able to talk about Estonian women in high positions as positive role models, and that is very unfortunate. Estonians like to emphasize that gender should not be an issue when recognizing somebody’s work, when promoting or giving responsibility, etc. But gender precisely is an issue when it comes to reaching higher levels of decision-making. 
Your job, as it’s been described in the press, is to monitor compliance with the Gender Equality law. You’ve suggested expanding that role to include representing people through the courts process. According to your mandate, are you confined mostly to a monitoring role, or do you have enforcement powers, as well? If you’re confined to monitoring, are you able to affect change through use of the bully pulpit? 
The name of my institution has been, since January 2009, the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner, and I monitor not only compliance with the Gender Equality Act but also the Equal Treatment Act. The Commissioner can bring about a change in practices by giving an expert opinion on whether discrimination has occurred, based on which the victim may turn to the labor dispute commission or the court for compensation of damages. In order to provide this opinion, which is legally non-binding, we contact the alleged discriminator and demand an explanation, as well as all the necessary data and documents. If the alleged discriminator refuses to recognize the decision of the Commissioner, we may disclose the subject matter of the dispute before us and exercise certain pressure through the media. Shortly, the Commissioner has monitoring powers, she/he may give legal counsel and aid, and she/he advises the executive power on questions of equal treatment and gender equality.    
What are the trouble areas (particular industries) where Article 141 EC (equal pay for equal work) is most violated?
I do not possess data that would show the prevalence of pay discrimination in specific sectors. The Commissioner’s office has, since 2005, received only a few complaints concerning unequal treatment in paying wages. For example, in 2009, the Commissioner found discriminatory practices in paying salaries in one of the ministries, but it does not mean that there are more violations in the public sector than the private. And one may not conclude much based on the existing scarce case law. These conclusions may be drawn in the future when we have more data available. 
Note also that the term gender pay gap is not the same thing as paying unequal wages for work of equal value. The gender pay gap is only partly caused by sex discrimination.  
What about clubs which have remained strictly male or strictly segregated in Estonia which are mixed in other countries (e.g. Rotary)? Do those fall under your area of influence?
Yes they do. However, the Estonian Gender Equality Act provides an exception in case of NGOs and non-profit associations – they may accept only women or only men as members if this arises from the statutes of the association. Here, examples may be choirs, and also some student associations are segregated by the sex of their members. 
Norway has been the subject of much attention for its “40 percent law” which requires, as I understand it, 33-50 percent representation by both sexes on corporate boards. This law did not originate as an affirmative action program, rather an economic concern. Norway was pouring millions of euros into educating women who were superior to men by most academic measures, but then the women weren’t allowed into the inner circles. Also, Norway believed in studies which said diversity promoted innovation. Some other European nations have copied this law. Would something like this, in your opinion, benefit Estonia? Is it conceivable that it could happen here?
I think Estonia would definitely benefit from positive measures aimed at achieving more gender equality – not only in economical decision making but also in political life. However, current public opinion and the views of the political elite are very negative, not to say hostile, towards quotas. So I do not foresee that the country would adopt any legislation imposing gender quotas on enterprises in near future. 
In the past ten years, what would you say has been the greatest achievement for Estonian women in terms of equality in the workplace?
The adoption of Gender Equality Act (GEA) in 2004. The draft of the law met lots of opposition and the legislative procedure was painfully long and difficult. Now the aim is to make this act work. I expect people to become more aware of their rights, their legal remedies, and the first cases (we have virtually no case law in issues of sex discrimination) to reach courts in upcoming years. 
The Ministry of Social Affairs is also planning to train legal professionals (barristers, judges, etc.) on issues of the equal treatment of women and men. 2010 and 2011 will be also years that we at the Commissioner’s office, in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Affairs, will target employers in order to raise their awareness about their duties as imposed by the GEA. 
Interview by Scott Diel

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