Implementing a GEP: The Journey Towards Gender Equality In Marine Science In Estonia

Estonia, the small North Eastern European country is famous for its technological advancements1 and well-developed education system. Achieving gender equality in Estonia, however, has been more difficult than establishing an online voting system, launching Skype, or receiving the highest scores of PISA tests.2

Indeed, the numbers related to gender equality in Estonia look very grim. The gender wage gap in Estonia amounted to 26% in 2017 – the highest in the entire European Union.3 Currently, the share of women is 27% in the Estonian parliament and 20% in the government, showcasing how few women there are in the highest decision-making bodies in Estonia. Sadly, the situation is very similar in academia.

In 2016, the share of women professors in Estonia was 24% and the share of women among heads of institutions in the Higher Education Sector amounted to 30%.4 At the same time, 54% of all doctoral graduates are women. These numbers clearly highlight that it is not the case that there are fewer women in academia, rather there are just fewer of them working in higher, managerial positions. Although the problem is evident, not many universities have systematically dealt with the issue. Some institutions, however, have started to pay more attention to gender equality and in 2018, The Estonian Marine Institute became the first institute with a gender equality plan (GEP).

Dr Tiit Kutser, who is the Research Professor in Remote Sensing and Marine Optics and the Head of Department in the institute’s Department of Remote Sensing and Marine Optics and the institute, shares the story of implementing the GEP:


The Council of Estonian Marine Institute (EMI), approved the institute’s GEP in November 2018. This was the first GEP implemented in an Estonian research and higher education system and as such got attention from both the University of Tartu as well as from other institutions.

Only a few years ago, gender related aspects were not discussed in detail at institute nor at the university level. The situation changed significantly when the Remote Sensing Department at EMI was invited to join a consortium of marine research institutions to promote gender-balanced career advancement, a family-friendly working culture, enhancement of gender-sensitive research and teaching methods. Particularly as marine science and technology is a field typically dominated by males. The Baltic Consortium aimed at Promoting Gender Equality in Marine Science and Technology (Baltic Gender) was funded from the Horizon 2020 Programme. Most of the consortium members have GEPs and gender equality officers in their institutions. Their existing experience was crucial for us, when preparing our own GEP. However, the issues which needed resolving in order to achieve better gender equality are very different across different countries, cities and institutions.

Consequently, the GEPs cannot be copied from one institution and applied in another. There is strong need to analyse the situation in a particular institution before the GEP can be developed. We found that there is also strong need to analyse changes in gender related statistics over time and to take into account the demographic differences among institute employees, not just the gender statistics. Otherwise it will not be possible to understand the gender related processes and develop an adequate GEP.

It seems that the most burning gender related issues in large institutions in large countries are related to the employment process i.e. how the candidates are selected for certain positions. There is sometimes a lack of transparency within the entire process, running from the selection criteria to the organisation of the final interviews. These issues proved to be almost irrelevant at EMI as it is extremely difficult to find specialists in specific fields in marine science, outside of the institute. Particularly as Estonia is a small country and thus, there is usually only one institute working in this field. In Estonia it is also not possible to hire candidates from abroad as official (Research) Professor salary levels are below the PhD fellowships in many European countries. Consequently, the only way to become a Research Professor at EMI is to start as a PhD or Masters student within the institute. There have been only three occasions during the whole history of the institute where we hired outside of the institute. In all three cases there were both male and female candidates and in all three cases female candidates were selected.

At present all the Research Professors in EMI are male. This suggests that that there is discrimination of female researchers in the institute at the highest competence level. However, this situation is caused by demographics in the institute. According to the Estonian law one may become a Professor the day after obtaining PhD (or in exceptional cases even without PhD degree). On the other hand, to become a Research Professor one has to be a Professor for at least 10 years or be a Senior Scientists and have supervised at least one successful PhD candidate. A few years ago there was gender balance – one male and one female Research Professor. The only female Research Professor passed away at the age of 84 and a few male researchers became Research Professors after having fulfilled the legal requirements. However, due to the law, there will be no female Research Professors in the institute during its first GEP as there are currently no female Senior Researchers who would qualify for the Research Professor position in the next few years.

However, there is a chance that the national legislation may change in the near future. There are plans to eliminate the distinction between Research Professor and Professor and simply have a Professor position. This will lead to a removal of requirements (thus there will be a removal of 10 year and supervised PhD requirements). This may open up the possibility for EMI to have one or more female Professors before the end of our fist GEP. In our GEP, however, we also included measures to improve the skills of female staff members in managing research projects, leadership training and administrative tasks.

As mentioned above, the only way to become a Senior Scientist or a Research Professor in EMI is to start as a student at EMI. One of the issues we found in the institute is that sometimes researchers are not promoted to the next level even if they formally qualify for it. In light of this, there is need to implement a better process of how researchers at different levels should discuss their possible promotion with their immediate supervisors and how the heads of departments should assess the situation in their departments. We also noticed that sometimes researchers do not want to be promoted. This is related to the science funding system in Estonia. Scientific research in Estonia is nearly 100% project based. Meaning that Universities do not pay researchers any salaries nor fund any other science related activities. Researchers themselves have to find funding for this as well as for purchasing desks, chairs, computers, pens, paper, scientific equipment, participating in conferences and fieldwork. Success rate of both the Estonian and EU grants is often below 10%. You may be among the 1% most cited researchers in the World in your field, but this does not mean that you get a salary from your University or qualify for an Estonian Research Council grant. Consequently, the leaders of research groups or heads of department have to work 24/7/365 days a year in order to find at least some funding for themselves and their team. The situation is very similar to running a company. This can create issues related to gender inequality as it does not allow for a flexibility and enhanced work-life balance, and thus, may reinforce gender stereotypical roles.

However, the government has decided to move from 100% competitive funding to 50/50 competitive and baseline funding. For example, last year for the first time, departments at EMI received government baseline funding from the University of Tartu. In our department this would have allowed us to pay each researcher around 100€ per month (i.e. less than 20% of legal minimum salary in Estonia). Thus, researchers are the only group of employees in Estonia who do not have a minimum salary, according to the law, awarded to them by their university. The development of more stable funding and incomes, may also encourage women researchers to seek progression opportunities.

Estonia has one of the highest gender pay gaps in the EU. Gender segregated salary information is public in the University of Tartu. We were able to analyse the pay gap in our institute as well. We observed that the gap is present only at one level and that female Researchers have a 13% higher salary than their male colleagues. This can be explained also by demographics in the institute where female Research Scientists have longer experience than most of the male Research Scientists who just recently qualified for that level. Therefore, we did not include gender pay gap issues in our GEP.

Flexible reconciliation of work and family life is typically one of the aspects that is included in the GEPs. This includes working from home, flexible working hours, part time work etc. Researchers’ working hours are not limited in Estonia and their work location does not matter much. This means that researchers can often work from home and decide their working hours themselves. This, for example, allows them to remain flexible with their time and take care of sick family members, children or continue their studies during normal working hours. For example, in our small department (7-8 people) there have been occasions when researchers have worked in three other locations in Estonia, besides our main offices, and one in Florida. This brings some challenges in organising the work, especially fieldwork and laboratory analysis, that cannot be carried out at home, but is doable in the modern world with new communication technologies.

Part time work is also a good opportunity to reconcile research and studies or research and taking care of family members. On the other hand, part time work may be enforced by managers, especially in Estonia, where the funding situation can be hectic. However, we did not find cases where people were forced to work part time because of the lack of funding. Most of part time workers needed to take care of their children after parental leave or needed time to focus on their PhD studies. Thus, the part time work was chosen by the researchers themselves. What we did find is that some researchers chose better paid part time jobs in other institutions or private companies in order to get adequate income. This allows them to continue doing research, that is closer to their heart, but still have a regular income to support themselves and their families.

EMI is in a quite unique position among generally male dominated marine research institutions. The amount of male and female scientists is nearly equal in the institute as a whole, but in some departments the staff consist of predominantly (nearly 90%) female researchers. During the training conducted by the Baltic Gender project staff, the lack of male staff was pointed out as one of the main gender related issues within our institution. The number of female students is over 90% in several departments of the University of Tartu. Male students are dominating (60/40) in the faculty of the Natural Sciences, most closely related to marine research. However, the percentage of female Junior Researchers in EMI overall is 75%. This indicates that we have to attract more male students in order to maintain a gender balance in the institute. We have included measures within our GEP to ensure this happens. However, it will be difficult as salaries in the private sector (and sometimes even in government) are much higher and the work confidence better as research funding has become similar to a lottery. It is quite common for Research Professors not to know whether they will receive a salary in the coming month, despite having a contract with the University. Such insecurity, is not very attractive for students.

The process of preparing our GEP (in the frame of the Baltic Gender project) has been very useful. The staff training about gender issues, in particular, initiated a lot of discussions. People started to reflect on issues they were previously not aware of such as the gender pay gap or gender neutral language in teaching, research, and everyday life. The GEPs of our partner institutions and the web based tools available in the space, helped us a lot. One key takeaway was the need to study each institution individually, in order to create a bespoke GEP. Simply applying one GEP across institutions, is nor useful nor possible, as there can be no ‘one size fits all’ solution when it comes to gender equality.

The gender equality plan of Estonian Marine Institute can be found at the website of University of Tartu:

Dr. Tiit Kutser

Head of Office, Research Professor in Remote Sensing and Marine Optics Estonian Marine Institute, University of Tartu

Loone Vilumaa

R&D Analyst. Estonian Research Council

Featured image used for the post: “Underwater lab” by Šmitaitė Leva





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