Maie Urbas, Chair of Women’s Organisation, Estonian Reform Party – Liberals


Dear guests, ladies and gentlemen,

First of all I would like to point out that any conference that addresses gender equality is very much needed in a specific society if the audience consists of women only. There can be done very little to improve the situation, unless both women and men take active interest in the issue. I am glad to spot (at least some/ a number of/ many) men in the audience. [kasuta vastavalt olukorrale]

The inclusion of women has found a controversial basis in Estonia. Due to the historical background of Protestantism, Estonian women stand on a better footing than women in countries, which are traditionally more patriarchal. The Estonian society has been historically still very traditional and the gender roles that existed in the past have somewhat remained till this day. It should be noted that the Soviet period had a positive effect on gender equality, keeping in mind the whole concept of camaraderie or comradeship and the promotion of women on occupations which are traditionally male dominated - collective farmers, bus drivers, militia and pilots and so on. Unfortunately the propaganda did not quite break the traditional prejudices.

With the restoration of the independence of the Republic of Estonia, the country shifted its economic aspirations towards the West, in particular to Scandinavia, which is renowned for its egalitarian society. Unfortunately it has not really reflected upon Estonia: deep-rooted prejudices are hard to beat and the attitude towards feminism can sometimes be unsympathetic. Considerably smaller wages, limited opportunities in the labour market, limited access to power and management and the difficulties combining family and work life are few of the problems that women have to deal with in Estonia. The main issues associated with men are low life expectancy, low educational level, and limited opportunities in the labour market.

In order to secure the inviolability of gender equality, it has been introduced by the means of the legislation in Estonia. Gender Equality Act entered into force in May 2004. It contains inter alia: prohibition of discrimination based on sex, promotion of gender equality, resolution of disputes concerning discrimination based on sex, regulations for Gender Equality Commissioner and Gender Equality Council. Equality and non-discrimination provisions also placed under general law; discrimination based on several grounds including sex is hence banned through the Employment Contracts Act as well as the Constitution. The principle of equal pay for work of equal value for women and men was established for the first time in the amended Wages Act, from 2001. The Parental Benefit Act entered into force in January 2004.

The Estonian government has also established the office of the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner, who has the responsibility to monitor compliance with the requirements of Gender Equality Act and Equal Treatment Act; accept applications from persons and provide opinions concerning possible cases of discrimination; analyse the effect of legal acts on the situation of women and men as well as minorities in society; make proposals to the Government of the Republic, government agencies, local governments and their agencies for amendments to legislation; advise and inform the Government of the Republic, government agencies and local government agencies on issues relating to the implementation of Gender Equality Act and Equal Treatment Act and take measures to promote gender equality and equal treatment.

The situation of women in the economy has been gradually improving but is not quite satisfactory. In 2009, the employment rate of women aged 15-74 (56%) was almost as high as that of men of similar age (59%). Compared to the previous years, the gender employment gap has narrowed considerably. The main reason for that is big decrease in men’s employment rate and increase in their unemployment rate in 2009. The unemployment rate was 11% for women and 17% for men. Unlike in many other counties, most employed women in Estonia are working full time. Only 14% of women and 7% of men were working part time in 2009.

Due to traditions, lack of childcare opportunities and shortage of part-time jobs, Estonian women with small children tend to remain inactive and return to full-time work only once their children have grown. One of the reasons why part-time work is not popular in Estonia is the low standard of living; part-time work does not ensure sufficient subsistence. The labour market in Estonia is highly segregated. The percentage of women is the highest in health, education and hotel business — 80–90% of people engaged in these areas are female. The percentage of women is high also in financial intermediation. In construction, energy, agriculture and transport, the employees are mostly male. The percentage of women in these areas is below 30%. Due to segregation the gender pay gap is very high. Female gross hourly earnings in 2007 were 72% of male earnings.

The education in Estonia is gender specific. Compared to men, women attend to school longer and have higher educational level. Men tend to end their educational career earlier and they acquire less likely higher education. Women and men are in different fields of study and this tendency isn’t decreasing. In addition to that, most of the educational workers are women; they dominate in every educational level, except in higher education. Less young men are accepted to institutions of higher education because they cannot compete with young women at admission. In 2009, 140 females were admitted per one hundred men. The share of women in the total number of students acquiring higher education was 61%.

The gender disproportion is certainly caused by the predominance of intended curricula for women as well. For example women prevailed in five out of eight fields of studies in bachelor’s studies; the female predominance was the highest in the fields of study of education and of health and welfare. More young men studied only in engineering, manufacturing and construction, in natural and exact sciences and in agriculture. All those young men who have succeeded in breaking into the higher education landscape do not unfortunately manage to stay there. The result is the aspect that much more women graduate higher education institutions than men - 238 female graduates per one hundred male graduates in 2009.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2009, Estonian women are about 71 percent as empowered as Estonian men. This ratio has been creeping upward although very slowly, over the past four years. But other countries are improving more quickly, so Estonia’s standing in the world, which fell in 2007 and 2008, remained stuck at 37th place in 2009.

The annual study examines gender equality in four areas, and Estonia distinguishes itself in none of them. The four areas along with Estonia’s global rank in each are the following: economic participation and opportunity (36); educational attainment (37); health and survival (41); and political empowerment (50).

The report exposes some glaring areas of inequality. Unlike its near neighbours Finland (2nd overall in the world), Latvia (14th), and Lithuania (30th), Estonia has never had a woman as head of state. And Estonia’s index of wage equality for similar work was alarming.

Estonia was the 18th-ranked country in Europe, but it did place far ahead of such gender-inequality powerhouses as Luxembourg (63rd in the world), Italy, (72nd), and Greece (86th).

Gender equality remains a problem in Estonia. Gender equality in its contemporary, internationally recognised meaning is a relatively new concept. Young women are not very interested in gender equality issues. Women that participate in equality congresses are mainly over 30 years old.

I would like end my speech with a more positive note that I have witnessed a gradual shift in social attitudes towards gender equality especially among young people, which means that in coming years we might expect some further progress. The Estonian Reform Party's slogan during the Parliamentary campaign this year was turning Estonia into a "Scandinavian tiger" in the economic sense. This can be achieved only if we also adopt a Scandinavian attitude towards gender equality.

Thank you!