Honoured delegates and guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you very much for the warm introduction. It is my pleasure to welcome you all here in Estonia and to address such a prominent audience of experts from all over the world.

Today’s high-level conference primarily aims to examine the progress of the Council of Europe Gender Equality Strategy. As you know it is held in  cooperation with the Council of Europe and is conducted in the frameworks of Estonia’s Chairmanship. To remind that combating gender stereotypes and sexism, preventing violence against women and achieving balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making are our chairmanship priorities.

Gender equality in particular could be seen as the quality mark of the well-functioning democracy. Without any doubt it is contributing to the protection of human rights. I’m personally convinced that the gender equality must become a basic norm – there is enormous potential in engaging women equally and fully.

In professional life, it should not matter whether you are a man or a woman; what matters is that you go for what you believe in, do it with passion and determination. Five out of eight of my advisers, including my Chief of Staff are women. That is because of their professionalism, expertise and creativity, - not gender. Everyone should be equal and have equal opportunities.

Nevertheless, gender-based inequality does exist. Not just in Estonia, where according to the Eurostat, we have the largest gender gap in wages in the European Union, but more broadly – in 2015, only half of the World’s working-age women were in the labour force, compared to 77 percent of working-age men. Paying more consideration to the fact that inequality does exist, we must be able – together – to reverse that trend.

At the same time we just got the most recent statistics that in the Estonian Government sector we have managed to make some improvements - in 2015 the gender pay gap decreased by 9.2% and women in senior or middle management positions earned 2.2 percent more than men. It is certainly a step in the right direction.

On overall, Estonia still differs little from the rest of the world: sadly approximate 25 percent of the women earn less than male due to unexplained reasons.

The unexplained percentage in wage gap cannot be justified but is usually attributed to several interplaying factors. From gender segregation in education and the accessibility to labour market to women's lower determination to negotiate decent salary. From work, family and private life opportunities combined with women's career breaks to discrimination in the workplace. Important elements are also the norms, values and attitudes that prevail in the society.

Government’s role and responsibility is critical in finding out the reasons for discrimination and inequality. As much as to lead by an example. Addressing the roots of gender inequality must apply to all policy areas. I am proud that since 2004 in Estonia we guarantee parents sound financial security after a child is born. Currently my Government is looking into ways of making the parental benefit system even more flexible to encourage both parents to share the child care responsibilities and enable all mothers interested returning to labour market more flexibly.

Changing outdated stereotypes must start from the very beginning. Every child in Estonia has equal access to education, which is rated as one of the best in the world. Yet we aim to achieve more, especially in order to decrease educational segregation that tends to appear in high school age brackets and later. To promote tech education in my tech-savvy country we’ve introduced several initiatives such as Tech Sisters also among girls.

I’m particularly glad that, after I leave you today, the Estonian Government will adopt a Welfare Development Plan to provide measures for combating wage differences and give our Labour Inspectorate the right to monitor the equality of wages.

I find it unacceptable that women earn less than men in similar positions because of any of the previously listed reasons. No one should be confronted with gender-based stereotypes, unequal access to justice and labour market. Any form of violence is totally unacceptable. These are fundamental values where no exceptions should apply.

I am pleased, and also proud, that Estonia is co-hosting today’s this important conference and that we can openly talk about what might inspire action, what are the best practices and impact on national policies and strategies, also to assess the progress of the current Strategy and to launch discussions on the priority themes for the next Strategy.

So. Are we there yet? No.

Are we on our way? Yes.

Thank you.