Gender equality issues examined

The issue of equality between women and men does not yet have a very high profile in Estonia. Current legislation is inadequate and draft laws to guarantee gender equality at the workplace and beyond, linked to forthcoming EU membership, have not yet been adopted. There is a lack of relevant institutions and qualified experts on all levels. This article reviews the situation in late 2003.

Gender equality in its contemporary, internationally recognised meaning is a relatively new concept for Estonia. While issues related to gender equality were addressed to a wider audience at a'conference of Estonian women' as early as 1989, they have not become a clearly developed field in Estonia. The relevant legislation is widely regarded as insufficient at present, and there is a lack of institutions with concrete and specific functions in this area, while experts and relevant knowledge are largely lacking. However, over time, it appears that the public has become more willing to discuss the respective rights and responsibilities of men and women.

In February 1998, the'Europe agreement'- an association agreement governing relations between Estonia and the European Union up until the former's accession - entered into force and a comparative analysis of Estonian and EU legislation commenced in spring of the same year. It became evident that there were significant differences between the objectives set in the EU's various equality Directives and the Estonian legislation in force. In 1998-2000, the Ministry of Social Affairs initiated a comparative analysis of the conformity of Estonian labour and pension laws with the relevant norms of EU law. Two EU-funded PHARE projects were launched to harmonise Estonian laws with EU provisions on equality between women and men, covering:

  • support for harmonising laws regarding equal treatment and employment conditions. As a result of the project, the range of topics to be regulated by a law on equality between men and women was specified; and
  • laws regulating state social insurance and EU legislation regarding equal treatment of men and women.

Assessments by foreign and local experts indicated that current Estonian legislation has gaps and is inadequate. There is also a lack of a legislative basis to guarantee adoption of the necessary measures to promote gender equality and implement the rights of women in practice.

In May 2000, the Estonian parliament (Riigikogu) ratified theCouncil of Europe'sEuropean Social Charter, though excluding the provision regarding equal pay for men and women. The justification was that it would have liked to ratify this rule but could not, because such principles cannot yet be implemented in Estonia. According to Professor Marju Lauristin (a former member of parliament), many women probably interpreted this as an unwillingness to undertake serious action to ensure actual equality between men and women in work.

Regulation of gender issues

Legal basis

Estonia has ratified various international treaties and conventions that set out the precepts embraced by democratic societies, including aspects of gender equality. Parliament has adopted laws that are designed to protect individuals, both male and female, in the sphere of employment and social wellbeing.

In the EU accession negotiations, Estonia committed itself to adopting a Gender Equality Act. A draft Act was elaborated by the Ministry of Social Affairs and adopted by the government in April 2000. This draft sets out the principles, definitions and legal measures necessary for the implementation of the principle of equal treatment. The objective of the proposed legislation is to promote equal opportunities for men and women and prevent gender discrimination, whether direct or indirect, as well as to establish equality in the labour market, education, social security schemes and other spheres. The draft stipulates that state and municipal institutions, educational and research establishments and institutions, and public and private employers have the task of promoting gender equality. Employers would be obliged to develop working conditions which are suitable for both women and men, and to facilitate the reconciliation of work and family life.

In 2001, the draft Gender Equality Act was approved by the government. After a first parliamentary reading in March 2002 and incorporation of a number of suggested amendments, the draft Act was referred back to the Constitutional Committee.

While the draft of the Gender Equality Act was going through the legislative process in parliament, the government started to consider the adoption of general anti-discrimination legislation aiming to meet, in one law, the standards for equal treatment of women and men and anti-discrimination more generally. This approach was incorporated in a draft Equality and Equal Treatment Act, which was launched in October 2002. This draft Act provides for a prohibition of discrimination on a variety of grounds, including sex, race, nationality, language, religion, age, disability and political or other beliefs. The draft of the Equality and Equal Treatment Act passed its first reading in parliament on 20 November 2002.

After parliamentary elections in March 2003, the amended draft Gender Equality Act was resubmitted to the newly elected parliament and passed the first reading stage in May 2003.

In late 2003, the social partners and governmental institutions have the opportunity to make proposals for amendments to the draft Gender Equality Act. The Estonian Employers’ Confederation (Eesti Tööandjate Keskliit,ETTK) (EE0310102F) has not given its support to the draft Act. It believes that the proposed provisions would inhibit the activity of employers and business in a substantial way, for example by establishing an unjustified number of additional obligations (eg collection and processing of data) and social functions (promotion of equality) for the employer, and by providing an unreasonably long term for submitting claims under the Act. The Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions (Eesti Ametiühingute Keskliit,EAKL) (EE0308101F) believes that the Act will fill a very important gap in Estonian legislation, though it thinks that there are still some issues which are not very well regulated in the Act. According to Margarita Tuch of EAKL, several policy-related questions are not subject to parliamentary jurisdiction and are left to the competence of Ministry of Social Affairs.

Bureau of Gender Equality

The promotion of gender equality is in the competence of the Ministry of Social Affairs and in December 1996, a Bureau of Gender Equality was established. The main activity of the bureau is to coordinate the mainstreaming of the gender equality perspective into socio-political developments. In its activities, the bureau is guided by the legal and political documents of various international organisations, and by common international practice. According to a report from the bureau entitled'Towards a balanced society', the following specific principles have been added to national equality policy in connection with European integration:

  • equal pay for work of equal value - connected with the desegregation of the labour market, accelerating the participation of women in decision-making, creation of a vocational classification system, analysis of work-evaluation criteria, and analysis of individual employment contracts and collective agreements;
  • equal treatment of men and women at work - reducing unemployment, reducing current segregation in vocational training, and improving career opportunities and working conditions;
  • reconciliation of work and family life - issues of paid and unpaid housework, accessibility of child-minding services, and the possibility for men to take parental leave; and
  • development of legal guarantees and protection mechanisms - drafting of the Gender Equality Act and preparing implementation mechanisms.

This list shows clearly that the various institutions in Estonia face many problems which need to be solved. The most important of these are: putting in place the relevant legislation; the development of national gender equality machinery; and the preparation and adoption of concrete action plans by the government, in order to promote equality. Increasing awareness in society and changing current practices and customs is equally important. The Bureau of Gender Equality has, in cooperation with several partners, initiated and organised various events in order to make gender equality problems known to the public, politicians, researchers and members of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Good practice

The Ministry of Social Affairs has in recent years implemented a number of projects incorporating gender equality and administrative capacity-building aspects. A joint government andUnited Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on'Supporting equality policy' (1995-7) aimed to provide training for women’s organisations. A government-UNDP project on'Promoting equality of the sexes' (1998-2000) was aimed at training civil servants, social and education workers, local government officials, representatives of NGOs and also the wider public, as well as analysing laws and carrying out research. A PHARE project on'Development of the occupational health and safety sector' included a study of the equality situation in two Estonian companies. As such, it was the first attempt to analyse Estonian workplaces from the gender perspective. A Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs project on'Gender equality in Estonia' (2002-3) sought mainly to strengthen administrative capacity in order to integrate a gender perspective in programmes and policies. The project focused on the enhancement of competences and increasing the relevant specific knowledge among lawyers working for the Labour Market Board and Labour Inspectorate.

AnInternational Labour Organisation (ILO) programme entitled'More and better jobs for women' promoted employment issues and introduced and tested in practice a successful new model for boosting female entrepreneurship. It helped create nearly 100 new jobs and nine new women’s organisations, plus the round table of Valga county women’s NGOs, and helped stimulate cooperation with local actors and boost local, regional, national and international networking. The model promoted by the ILO programme takes into consideration the specific constraints, barriers and problems faced by female entrepreneurs, and provides tools to overcome them. This programme helped increase awareness of gender issues thereby strengthening the Bureau of Gender Equality; this involved publication and dissemination of training materials on gender equality, and submission of two major project proposals to access EU funding to improve the capacity of national and local authorities to implement gender mainstreaming with a long-term sustainable effect.

However, commentators state that none of these projects have been able to develop a'critical mass' of people consistently trained in gender issues and able systematically to apply the knowledge within their daily responsibilities. According to the final report on the implementation of the ILO programme on'More and better jobs for women', the factors responsible for this are numerous:

  • the novelty of the topic. Gender equality started to be dealt with in Estonia relatively recently - around 1995, essentially in connection with theUnited Nations Beijing conference on women;
  • the continuing impact of the treatment of equality during the Soviet period, when it was believed that gender equality was fully secured. Consequently the whole concept was trivialised and, during the process of democratisation and transition, due to many political and economic problems, gender equality was not defined as a priority either by society at large or by decision-makers;
  • inadequate commitment to gender equality among policy designers;
  • inadequately developed gender equality mechanisms;
  • absence of national gender equality legislation that would commit government and local government officials to promote gender equality within their daily responsibilities;
  • absence of a comprehensive gender training framework;
  • limited knowledge of gender equality among government officials. Gender equality issues are not taught in higher education or in further training institutions preparing civil servants;
  • absence of gender experts to be used as trainers; and
  • lack of Estonian-language guidelines, handbooks and manuals on gender mainstreaming.

According to the Ministry of Social Affairs' Strategic Action Plan for 2000-10 (adopted in 2000), the integration of the principle of gender equality into all national policies has been set as an important long-term objective.

Monitoring equality issues

The Bureau of Gender Equality has started to collect gender-sensitive data and the preparation of gender-sensitive indicators. The Statistical Office of Estonia collects gender-disaggregated data on the labour market and education. Information is available on employment, educational background, wages etc. In 2002, the Statistical Office prepared the first comprehensive statistical overview on the social status of women and men, entitledWomen and men in Estonia 2001.

There are some research institutions dealing with gender issues in Estonia, two of which are within universities. There is a Unit of Gender Studies at theUniversity of Tartu (established in 1990), which aims to promote and coordinate gender studies and relevant research, information and consultancy, as well as cooperation and networking between different governmental institutions, the academic community and women’s NGOs. The Centre for Women’s Studies atTallinn Pedagogical University has developed special courses in the field of women’s studies.


In Estonia, business is treated as a'gender-neutral' area. As the main legislative acts concerning gender equality have not yet adopted and the general public awareness is not very high, no workplace-level gender equality plans have been developed. However, equality of opportunities for women and men in gaining access to the labour market, in career advancement, in earnings and in reconciling work and family life have been identified as one of the aims of current labour market strategy in Estonia. (Kaia Philips and Raul Eamets, University of Tartu)

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