First of all there is strong vertical segregation: very few women work at top levels of large enterprises. The biggest university in Estonia the Tartu University and most of the other universities have only a few women professors and only the pedagogical universities are an exception in this regard. Women form 17 per cent of the Estonian Parliament and in the government only the Minister of Culture is a woman. It seems that women don't have much to do with politics in Estonia.
The second problem is horizontal segregation. There are areas of work (service, healthcare, education) where the majority of employees are women and salaries are low. Kindergartens and the sewing industry are at the lowest end of salaries and only women work there. Other areas of work (construction, energy and power, transport) have high salaries and the majority of workers are men there.
Thirdly very often women who work in equal positions to men nevertheless have disadvantages due to individual salary negotiations and limitations to wage disclosure. As a result of these three issues women earn about 30% less than men in Estonia. This is one of the largest gender-based wage differences in the European Union.
Gender in kindergartens
Kadri Aavik, project leader of ENUT (The Estonian Women's Studies and Resource Centre) says that wages segregation is mainly due to existing gender stereotypes, which are still being reproduced as they are deeply rooted in people's consciousness. In 2008 Kadri Aavik and Kristi Kajak conducted the research project "Social construction of gender in Estonian kindergartens" which analysed the social construction of gender. The research results showed that gender stereotypes are common in Estonian kindergartens both among the teachers as well as the 5-6 year old children. Each of the seven Tallinn kindergartens had organized separate play areas for girls and boys - the boys main play activities related to construction, car and war industry; and care-oriented games and activities (playing with dolls, playing home, school, doctor etc) were meant for girls. In several cases the teachers asked the girls to help with tidying up the playroom and paid more often negative attention to boys than to girls. Thus the 5 year olds already believe that boys are strong and should protect the more "gentle" girls, even though in reality girls develop faster and are physically stronger at the age of 5. Boys and also girls think that girls should be first of all pretty. Estonian schools continue reproducing these stereotypical gender roles through the study programs, textbooks and especially with the attitudes of the majority of teachers.
Gender stereotypes often determine the choice of studies in the university, too. 62% of students in humanities are women apparently because it is generally believed that humanities is a female area while the technical departments consist of 62% men as technical subjects are believed to be male.
Kadri Aavik notes that the existing gender roles are taken for granted and therefore are invisible to people and this is why the 30 per cent lower salary does not occur as a real problem. A man from the street thinks that a teacher's salary is low because the job is easy and does not deserve better pay. Furthermore if the teachers are not happy with their income they can work additional jobs outside of school. Another common argument against equal salaries is "husbands earn well and support their family". This perspective relies on social Darwinism and assumes that as in the animal kingdom the male protects the family and the female nurtures the young thus it should be like that in the human society too. (In fact the animal and bird kingdom are extremely diverse and examples can be found to support any argument.)
The assumption that the man feeds the family is in fact not true for Estonia because a large number of families are single mothers. Almost half of marriages end in divorce and several thousands ex-husbands do not pay their aliments - try to sneak away. Thus the family is dependent on women and not the men in Estonia.
Kadri Lühiste, director of the research department of the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund, notes that many men have lost their jobs (in construction, heavy industries) during the economic crisis. Women (working in service, healthcare, education) have mostly been able to keep their jobs. But it is incorrect to conclude that women are in any better position right now concerning salaries.
Reet Laja, head of the board of direction of ENUT finds this assumption misleading and even demagogical. In reality many women lost their jobs already before the economic crisis or have voluntarily given up work because of the embarrassingly low salaries. Today these women have been jobless for such a long time that the official statistics consider them to be housewives instead of unemployed.
Kadri Lühiste from the Unemployment Insurance Fund adds that the current situation is unprecedented - for the first time in history the majority of working people in Estonia are women. We could conclude that not just the family but also the whole state is dependent on women's labour, mostly well-educated women’s labour.
We can only hope that the economic crisis will bring along a crisis of gender roles.