Rejecting the ‘she-cession’: Estonia’s work-life equation has been balanced since the 90s 

Article by Kristi Veskus, Deputy Director of Estonian Government´s Work in Estonia Programme

work life balance imageOver the last few years, everybody’s lives have taken numerous unpredictable turns. The vast majority of people went to fully remote working, and most have not returned to five days in the office – or to dreaded commuting! 

In addition, there has been a massive uptake in entrepreneurship, with people turning to ‘side hustles’ and using time gained from furlough to pursue their other passions. For some, being laid off was the push they needed to make a career change, while many others have taken part in the ‘great resignation’ and quit their jobs on account of shifting priorities as a response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

It would be fair to say that for individuals in these positions, the lasting impacts of the pandemic on work-life balance in particular has been a positive one. 

And although I wholeheartedly believe that remote working and more flexible working structures are a force for good (as we’ll come to discuss), this narrative around ‘time saved’ and ‘opportunities created’ has clouded our view of one very important fact; that there have been significant disparities in the experiences of individuals throughout the pandemic. Namely for women and minorities. 

March 2020: Shifting Labour Market

At the beginning of 2020, the ‘she-cession’ took hold, and women were disproportionately forced to drop out of the labour market, particularly in areas such as tech and law. Prior to the pandemic, women were already spending more time doing unpaid household work than their male counterparts, so when they took on full-time childcare and teaching responsibilities too, the situation got much worse. In fact, research by Deloitte found that 65% of women reported having more household responsibilities, while 53% were responsible for home-schooling. 

Since more women are in part-time work, and being paid less than men when in full-time work, the logic for many families during this unprecedented time was simple; the higher earner needed to keep their job. The odds weren’t in women’s favour, and even less so for women from minority backgrounds; McKinsey reported that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs and that despite women making up 39% of global employment, they account for 54% of overall job losses.

These effects were felt to a large extent all over the world, but some countries were better equipped for mitigating inequalities, and there are lessons here that must be learnt to make sure we are better prepared for future crises.

Lessons from Estonia

In Estonia, we are really focussed on using tech to solve bigger problems. This has an interesting impact on women in particular, who are carrying a heavier load than most. Our government is 99.9% digitised, which means filing your taxes, applying for financial support, or notifying the state about a change of address, can all be done from home. 

The time saving implications here are particularly beneficial for women who, as we have established, have a higher workload than men when you take into account unpaid domestic labour – especially over the last few years as strict stay-at-home orders created new challenges.

The Estonian state also supports women and men to take an additional 435 days of paid parental leave that can either be taken all at once by one parent, or shared in parts before the child reaches 3 years of age (although only one parent at a time can be on leave). 

This may seem like a small thing, but it has created a cultural distinction; maternity/paternity leave in Estonia is setting an encouraging precedent. Paternity leave is becoming more popular and Estonia has amended its Parental Benefit Act in 2020 to increase the base paternity leave to 30 days. These changes are slowly shaping and transforming the future of work around the world. The ‘work-from-home’ era started decades ago in Estonia, and matched with digital government, it’s giving employees more chances to focus on innovation.

Estonia has the most startups per capita, and the entrepreneurial state of mind is bred into us from a young age. This goes for both girls and boys, and while nowhere in the European Union has more than 50% of leaders that are women, compared to the European average, there are somewhat more female managers in Estonia at 37%.

We find that our business and tech culture thrives off of providing generous time away, making it a particularly attractive place to bring up children. The work-life balance of the average employee is marginally better than in many other countries, but the pandemic has created a global opportunity for every other nation to catch-up. 

As we have seen, shifting this balance is absolutely essential for promoting gender parity, and decision-makers are remiss not to pursue positive change in the wake of such a difficult few years. We must make the effort now to prepare for the future, making sure to lay the groundwork for women and other minority groups not to get left behind.

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