Gender equality

Gender equality is the principle that women and men should have equal rights, obligations, responsibilities and opportunities. Gender differences must not lead to inequalities in the social position or treatment of women and men.

Gender equality means equal rights and opportunities for women and men in education, employment and other areas. The work, ambitions, requests and needs of both men and women must be equally valued. A person’s gender must not limit their ability to shape their own life or have a say in social matters. This is a political objective from the viewpoint of society’s development. The opposite of the concept of gender equality is gender inequality, not gender difference.

Gender equality is expressed, for example, in women’s and men’s:

  •  balanced participation in decision-making at both national and local levels;
  •  equal use of women’s and men’s knowledge and skills for the development of society;
  •  equal economic independence;
  •  equal status in the labour market;
  •  equal opportunities for good physical and mental health;
  •  equal opportunities to reconcile work, family and private life;
  •  equal access to resources (including time, information, networks), etc.

Although the conditions laid down by law appear to be the same for everyone, in reality the social obligations, opportunities, responsibilities and rights of women and men are unequally distributed. Societal norms, prevailing gender stereotypes and rooted perceptions of gender roles can lead to unequal treatment of people at work, in education and elsewhere, and can limit women’s and men’s educational and employment options and personal development, thus constituting a major obstacle to achieving equality between women and men. Gender inequalities in education and the labour market, such as gender-based and vertical segregation and the pay gap, are not the result of the different biological abilities of men and women, but of traditional perceptions of appropriate behaviours and occupations for men and women and gender stereotyped role expectations.

Gender equality is both a principle to follow and a goal to strive for.


The Gender Equality Act has been in force in Estonia since 2004.

If you feel that you’ve been treated unequally, please contact the Equality Commissioner by e-mail at [email protected] or telephone +372 626 9059. The anonymity of the person is guaranteed when contacting the Commissioner.

What are the benefits of gender equality?

Gender equality is a development objective of democratic societies, a common good and a matter of social justice. Gender stratification in society hinders balanced human development and leads to human rights violations. Equal treatment of men and women is one of the core values of the European Union and a central principle that runs through all its activities.

The sustainability of a society depends on its ability to create the best opportunities for its people to develop and thrive. There is a direct link between economic growth, employment and real equality between the two largest social groups – men and women. The active participation of all human resources – both men and women – ensures competitiveness and employment growth. Every person must be able to develop their abilities and make choices freely, without being constrained by gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles. Valuing the skills, competences and talents of every member of society is important for both the sustainability of society and human development.

Equal, full and effective participation of men and women in all areas of collective life, in particular in employment, will contribute to achieving smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, which is the goal of the Europe 2020 strategy. In order to achieve this, promoting gender equality must become a daily activity in the policy-making process.

Promoting gender equality will help to make the public sector more efficient and human-centred, and to ensure that the policies and public services that are designed are in fact equally accessible, of good quality and of equal benefit to men and women.

Who is protected by gender equality and equal treatment laws?

Unequal treatment is prohibited by law in both the private and public sectors. To ensure equal treatment for women and men, the Gender Equality Act and the Equal Treatment Act have been established to protect both men and women from unequal treatment.

These laws protect people from ill-treatment based on a person's identity, such as gender or nationality. The Gender Equality Act applies to cases where the characteristics of a person are related to their gender, including pregnancy, childbirth, parenthood, performance of family obligations or other circumstances related to gender. According to the Equal Treatment Act, discrimination can be based on grounds of nationality (ethnic origin), race, colour, religion or other beliefs, age, disability or sexual orientation.

The purpose of these laws is to protect minority groups and the people who belong to them in the areas of life and situations specified in the law.

The requirements of the Gender Equality Act and the Equal Treatment Act apply in almost all areas of life, with some exceptions, such as circumstances involving family, private life and registered religious associations. In addition, it is prohibited to treat people less favourably in an employment relationship due to fulfilment of family responsibilities, social status, representation of the interests of employees, membership in an association of employees, language skills and fulfilment of conscription obligations.

Both laws impose an obligation of equal treatment, meaning that no one may be treated unequally in relation to the characteristics listed in the law (i.e. gender, nationality, etc.). Equal treatment means the absence of unequal treatment.

What is needed to achieve gender equality?

Gender inequality is a social problem that needs to be tackled at the societal level. Achieving equality between women and men must not be confused with technically equal treatment of women and men.

Achieving gender equality requires:

  • a thorough analysis of gender inequality in society and its causes;
  • reduction of gender gaps and elimination of inequalities between women and men through appropriate measures;
  • establishment of real equal opportunities for women and men to participate in all areas of society. The representatives of both genders must have equal opportunities to influence political, economic and other decisions that determine social life;
  • ensuring equal treatment of women and men by prohibiting discrimination and ensuring effective redress for people who have experienced discrimination.

There are three complementary approaches to achieving equality between men and women, which have also been used in the development of the Gender Equality Act in Estonia. These approaches are as follows:

1) women and men must be treated equally – women and men in a similar situation must be treated equally, i.e. equal rights must be guaranteed, discrimination based on sex is prohibited (clause 1 (2) 1) of the Gender Equality Act);

2) special measures – temporary measures must be taken to support the disadvantaged sex (clause 5 (2) 5) of the Gender Equality Act);

3) gender mainstreaming – gender equality must be promoted in all areas of collective life, i.e. the so-called gender mainstreaming strategy must be implemented (clause 1 (2) 2), §§ 9–11 of the Gender Equality Act).

What does the creation of equal opportunities mean?

Considering equality of opportunity as an underlying issue means that it’s been analysed and observed that the barriers and obstacles which limit the actual opportunities of individuals belonging to one or another social group in seemingly similar conditions are eliminated using certain measures and actions. Attitudes, myths, stereotypes, direct or indirect discrimination, historically and culturally established patterns of behaviour, etc. may be limiting factors.

Persons in respect to whom certain prejudices and negative attitudes have become common in society, whose interests are subjected to the interests of dominating groups that are in power or who are marginalised and excluded do not have equal opportunities. Seemingly identical objective conditions do not guarantee that opportunities are equal. For example, disabled people have an equal right to education according to law, but in practice, disabled people are unable to exercise this right if educational institutions are not accessible.

Creating equal opportunities is often based on the notion that once people have been put on an equal footing and initial barriers removed, what happens next depends only on their own free will. No attention is given to the fact that ‘free will’ is often shackled by the restrictive stereotypes and outdated standards in society.

The activities needed to analyse the equality of opportunities and create equal opportunities are: consultation, involvement of experts, use of relevant studies and statistical benchmarks.

Avoiding less favourable treatment on the basis of age and ethnicity and creating more equal opportunities means the inclusion of age groups in decision-making and the activities of the measure, consideration of the situation of different age and ethnic groups, informing them and making the communication aimed at them more effective, and enabling access to services and benefits.


In order to avoid discrimination based on disability, i.e. to ensure equal treatment of disabled people, it’s important to include the group in decision-making processes, ensure access to the activities of the measure and implement universal and inclusive design.

What does the obligation to promote equality mean?

The obligation to promote gender equality applies to all public sector institutions – ministries, the Government Office, county governments, state agencies and inspectorates, and institutions that have the authority of local executive power, as well as local governments and their authorities and other city or rural municipal authorities that exercise public authority and the authorities administered by them.

In addition to the Gender Equality Act, which stipulates the obligation to implement the gender mainstreaming strategy, some institutions, depending on their field of activity, are also obliged to implement the gender mainstreaming strategy in accordance with the directly applicable regulations of the European Parliament and of the Council. For example, the common provisions applicable to the funds under the Common Strategic Framework financed by the European Union Structural Funds include a commitment to promote equality between men and women and the integration of gender issues.

Pursuant to subsections 9 (1) and (2) of the Gender Equality Act, state and local government authorities are required to systematically and purposefully promote gender equality. Their duty is to change the conditions and circumstances that hinder achievement of gender equality.

Upon planning, implementation and assessment of national, regional and institutional strategies, policies and action plans, state and local government authorities must take into account the different needs and social statuses of men and women and consider how the measures applied and to be applied will affect the situations of men and women in society.

The objective of the combined effect of subsections 9 (1) and (2) of the Gender Equality Act is to ensure the implementation of the gender mainstreaming strategy. Subsection 9 (21) stipulates that upon implementing the gender mainstreaming strategy, the state and local government authorities must, if necessary, consult the relevant interest groups and non-profit organisations that have a legitimate interest in helping to combat discrimination based on sex.