On the day when the new coalition government assumed office, one could have been excused, looking at the makeup of the Cabinet, for thinking that it is a throwback to 1999 - or worse, Soviet-era 1985 - all over again. The Cabinet has only two female ministers.
When Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas took over from Andrus Ansip in the spring of 2014, he was keen to display a touch of modernity. In a coalition government with the Social Democrats, new female ministers were brought in, six in total. Along with passing the Cohabitation Act, it seemed that Estonia will be more synchronized with its Scandinavian neighbors and is taking small steps towards greater gender equality, as well as embracing minorities.
But on April 9, 2015, on the day when the new government assumed office, the previous changes all suddenly appeared as a mere cosmetic revamp. Only two female ministers – Keit Pentus-Rosimannus and Urve Palo – standing like flower girls in front of gloomy looking bunch of middle-aged men, remained from the previous government, a picture reminiscent of the Soviet era (the Soviet-occupied Estonian government had only one female minister in 1985). In the social media, mocking images comparing the Estonian government to those in Sweden, Norway and Denmark appeared. By comparison, 13 of the 24 Swedish Government ministers are women.
Trouble starts at the top
Apart from not properly representing the cross-section of Estonian society, why does the composition of the Cabinet actually matter?
Trouble starts at the top, they say – which is why it is important that the government and public institutions lead by example and send out a message that Estonia is a 21st century society, where men and women are equal and democratically promoted based on merit, not according to ties in the “old boys club.” This means appointing women and men on top positions equally.
As emerged recently, Kaja Kallas, Reform Party's MEP, also pointed out in her letter to Rõivas that despite the fact that Maris Lauri and Anne Sulling – former finance and entrepreneurship ministers respectively – were elected to Parliament with over 4,000 votes each, neither was appointed to chair a Parliament's committee, let alone reappointment as a minister.
It also matters because in the Global Gender Gap Index, Estonia sits at 62, behind Thailand and just ahead of Zimbabwe. The index measures many indicators, such as the gender pay gap and the general under-representation of women in key management and political positions and in the parliament. By European standards, Estonia is doing badly in all of them – it has the highest gender pay gap in Europe, a whopping 29.9 percent; and 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 Lithuania, which has a female president, no female politician has ever managed to hold such positions in Estonia. The difference between its southern neighbors 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 managerial 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, but so far there hasn’t been any sign of change.
Estonian women – more educated than men, but under-represented
European Union has also drawn attention to Estonia’s gender pay gap and gender equality. The country scores above the EU average in the area of time use and education and training, but does very poorly in the area of power. Over 50 percent of Estonian women have completed higher education by the time they are 35, contrasted with just 28 percent of men. Yet Estonian women representation in decision-making in the political and economic spheres is very low.
This is one area where the EU can only make recommendations - finding a solution is in the hands of the national government and society at large, which is why the government, the public institutions, the media and opinion leaders need to send out a message that it's not alright to discriminate women and measures need to be taken to deal with 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. It is important to raise awareness that equal pay and equal representation of women in key positions and in political institutions is a sign of mature and democratic society.
Before the last Parliament election, the Reform Party came up with a platform to make Estonia a “new Nordic country". If that's still the aim, then there is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to gender equality – it's enough if we just studied how our Northern neighbors have achieved it. Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden all take the top four positions in the Global Gender Gap Index.
Sweden's Discrimination Act requires that all employers must actively pursue specific goals to promote equality between men and women. Employers are expected to equalize 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. 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. In the Swedish Government, there is also a dedicated Minister for Gender Equality, ultimately responsible for gender equality issues. As for the political positions, 45 percent of the Swedish MPs are women.
True, the history of ensuring gender equality in Sweden goes back almost a century, but it is our task to catch up. Estonia has made a great leap economically in the last 20 years – now it's time to achieve social cohesion too. This does not mean compromising on business success – quite the opposite, in fact. The more members of the society feel included, the more content they are, the less likely would they emigrate. Although no statistics has been conducted so far, private conversations reveal that there are a number of highly educated, ambitious Estonian women who have chosen to leave the country simply because they were not promoted or paid well enough in their homeland. These professionals are now busy with careers in Helsinki, Stockholm, London, Brussels, Hague, and elsewhere.
Appointing more female members to the Cabinet does not alone, of course, bring back the lost female professionals – it's the real decisions that count. But it should be a natural step – and an appropriate one in sending out a signal that Estonia is in the 21st century. And why not nominate a female presidential candidate in 2016?