Wage gap – a matter of employers’ attitudes

Mari-Liis Sepper

PHOTO: Liis Treimann / Postimees

Equality commissioner Mari-Liis Sepper thinks people ought to be bolder to break out of gender roles imposed upon them.

Estonian women will not go to court to get equal pay – it is the employers who need a change of mind regarding wage equality, admits Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner Mari-Liis Sepper.

Ms Sepper has had a busy time: last Friday, she introduced to Estonian public EU’s fist ever equality index, where we landed among the mid-lower ranks, positioned 14th. Being far from equality in average salaries and powers, with ladies significantly less esteemed. It is also worse with us when it comes to the ladies’ home life, wherefore they have less time for hobbies.

At the other extreme, Estonian ladies have an upper hand in health and education, favoured by a longer expected lifespan and a higher percentage of university degrees.

Ms Sepper finds that more men should dare go into pedagogy, health care, social work or other humanities, putting more effort into raising children and doing more home chores. Women, in their turn, should consider studying for fields with higher pay, be more active politically and seek to express themselves.

Yesterday, the commissioner presented to Constitutional Committee an overview of her last year’s work. All in all, she had to process 394 cases referred to her; with 11 cases of discrimination detected and four ending in monetary compensations to victims – thanks to the commissioner’s efforts. Surprisingly, however, complaints by men were more numerous for the first time.

As revealed by your fresh annual report, more complaints regarding gender equality were filed by men. Why?

For very many years, when it comes to suspected gender discrimination, men and women have come about 50:50. Last year saw a ASBL campaign called «Daddy, where are you» – we have not had a campaign like that earlier, bringing such numbers of complaints by men, all at once.

At the same time, fewer women complained of gender discrimination. Sometimes, men see gender discrimination in situations hardly qualifying as such: for instance, they have asked me why, in the courts of first instance, there are more female judges.

Women complaining about personal issues, men detecting stuff in society...

Precisely. At the same time, the male troubles are sometimes complex, difficult to solve. The campaign being a good example of that: the commissioner being unable to do much, this being a customer protection issue. Another was the May Race organised for women – men wanting to know if this is illegal.

At the same time, we did get a rather interesting complaint last year: a male masseuse complaining that his contract was under pressure, because clients favour female masseuses. The employers wanted to reduce his working hours and turn his labour contract into contract for services. We helped him have recourse to labour dispute committee; he won the dispute.

In your annual report, you talk at length about cases of discrimination against women returning from parental leave. Is that the sharpest problem currently, for women in Estonia?

Judged by our practice: yes. However, it has to be considered that quite few complaints ever reach us. In 2012, there was an EMOR poll conducted on last two years’ experiences of discrimination, personally or by close relatives. In the poll, age came first, followed by language, nationality. Being a parent came fifth.

Meanwhile, with us the more serious cases of discrimination are still related to parental leaves. With Agricultural Registers and Information Board (PRIA), also, we were approached by two ladies, with 40 being in the same situation.

Estonia’s gender related wage gap is 28 per cent, the widest in Europe. In five years, it has not narrowed at all. To solve a problem, we must be able to explain it. Why such a persistent gap?

In 2010, our only serious gender wage gap study was published. The main result being: we do not know the real reasons. In the study, various factors were considered from selection of professions to gender segregation, asking whether this would explain the wage gap. Of the 28 per cent, only a couple of percentage points found an explanation. With lower education levels, the gap is smaller. On management levels, ladies are far lower paid than men. To gain insight, more research is needed.

Should we see more court cases in the future of women demanding equal pay with male colleagues?

We have hoped so, for quite a while now. But this has its problems: it is very risky to go against one’s employer with such demands. Working relationships turn very complex; and employers have more leverage anyhow. I am not foreseeing an explosive growth of court cases. Rather, it could become normative in our society for employers seeing to it that people who put in equal effort get paid the same. In the public sector, this has been going on for some time now.

Last week, Norway became the EU and NATO state to introduce mandatory army service for women. Are you ready to stand for the same rights for Estonian ladies?

I have actually voiced my stand in the comments to Gender Equality Act. In today’s society, I do not see many reasons why it should only be mandatory for men. We cannot rule out such discussions once the Ministry of Defence is ready for the debate. I see absolutely no hindrances to this, but surely this is not something I will be fighting for during my term of office.

By this summer, your staff will grow from two to eight persons. Which capabilities will you have?

One goal is to strengthen legal protection: trainings, information material. With certain discrimination debates – with wider implied impact on society – we will endeavour to offer substantial help. If needed, we can hire an advocate for people; so in case the person loses out in court, we will also pay the second party’s legal costs.

The other goal is gender integration in the public sector. With consultations, guidelines, meetings with foreign experts, research etc.

How many men will you add to your staff?

By now, five of the six new posts have been filled, with one contest remaining. All five contests were won by ladies. A misconception has taken root that in any agency – however small – men and women ought to be 50:50. Should a manager say: we have lots of ladies and we should only hire men now, then it could lead to rejection of the better qualified female candidates. And that would be gender-related discrimination.