TALLINN - The gender equality problem remains one of the important issues in Europe, as well as one of the important problems in Estonian society today. Men are still paid more than women in Europe, but the European Union is promising to narrow the gap.
According to a recent study made by Eurostat, Estonia has the highest gender pay gap in the European Union. Statistics from the study show that Estonian women earn an average of 30 percent less than men, although the gap appears to have dropped by one-third in 2009, according to domestic statistics. Estonia’s Social Insurance Fund data shows that, while in 2007 women paid 31 percent less social tax than men, in 2009 the difference was below 20 percent. The question about laws not being able to address this is currently a central topic in Estonia.
“We have two laws for this. One is the law of equality, and the other is the law of equal treatment, but they only exist formally. If these laws are not followed, then nothing will change,” said Tartu University’s social politics’ lecturer Dagmar Kutsar.
Christian Veske, the main specialist at the gender equality department in the Ministry of Social Affairs, admitted that the critique is not unfounded and agreed with Kutsar, saying that “Of course, the existence of laws is not enough; the praxis of them is important. I have to admit that it is problematic with both of these two laws.”
Veske explained that the victims of discrimination do have the opportunity to appeal to a representative of gender equality, but this representative does not have the right to punish the person at fault.
“In several other countries the representative has rights to enact legislation. In Estonia, we do not have that opportunity right now,” said Veske. “But everybody has the right to appeal to the court for help to solve discrimination arguments,” he added.
According to Veske, when someone feels discriminated against, then, according to the law, they themselves should appeal to the appropriate institutions. Estonian Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner Margit Sarv said that fighting for one’s rights in a working relationship takes a lot of courage. Sarv has received only seven complaints concerning pay in five years despite the large pay gap.
One of the main problems which still remain unsolved is gender segregation, as certain sectors of the Estonian workplace are dominated by one sex, and protesting about unequal wages there is more difficult if there are hardly any men in the sector to compare with. It also helps hide the issue, as, according to Eurostat, Estonians are among the least aware nationality in Europe of gender pay issues in their country.
According to Mark Smith, an assistant professor at the Grenoble School of Management and a member of the European Expert Group on Gender and Employment, although a large number of women are in the workforce in Estonia, the job sectors are very segregated by sex. “Estonia is one of the champions of segregation,” Smith said. “In Estonia you have a relatively high level of employment, which means there are many women in work and they are concentrated in low-paying jobs.”
Sarv also noted that it is important to more highly value those job sectors that women dominate, such as education, health and social work, and it is important to trust women to take leading positions. “Transparency is important - all employees should know on what basis they get paid, and on what criteria their salary and bonuses are counted,” Sarv said.
European Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Commissioner Viviane Reding said the Commission would work with member states to raise awareness and did not rule out using legislative measures to promote wage equality. “We will all work together to make sure the gender dimension is visible and integrated in all policies,” Reding said.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said these plans were the EU’s “calling card” on gender equality for the next five years, and that they would be at the heart of the Europe 2020 strategy, a 10-year plan to boost economic growth and create jobs.
EU leaders have good political reasons to succeed - opinion polls suggest Europeans want the pay gap narrowed. A 2009 survey conducted on behalf of the European Commission showed a large majority of Europeans want action to combat gender inequality, and almost two-thirds said it was widespread in their country.
Polls also suggest the 27-country EU has good economic reasons to improve matters. A study completed in the first half of last year showed that the elimination of employment discrepancies based on gender could increase the EU’s gross domestic product by 15 to 45 percent. There are signs that the EU is committed to improving matters for women.