Studies conducted in Estonia and other countries show that there are many female mid-level managers but women all too often hit a glass ceiling in trying to get to the highest tier of business leadership. Why is it that way, and are quotas the only way to break the glass?

We invited three people with experience in this field – Grant Thornton Baltic partner and head of legal Kristel Tiits, co-founder of Grünfin Triin Hertmann and leadership coach and longtime media executive Merle Viirmaa – to discuss.

But first, a few statistics. For 20 years, Grant Thornton, a business consultancy and auditing company operating in more than 130 countries, has been conducting an international survey that looks at the percentages of male and female executives at medium-sized enterprises, among other topics. Two decades ago, women made up less than 20% of senior management, but today the number is over one-quarter. Estonia has always stood out in this survey for its high share of female business leaders. Yet still, even Estonian women vying for senior executive posts, glass ceilings are not unheard of.

Grant Thornton Baltic partner Kristel Tiits says the existence of this barrier ceiling depends greatly on organizational culture and the potential executive themselves. She also points out that a certain kind of stereotypical thinking is loath to fade. “For example, at meetings attended by both men and women, it’s the women who often get the suggestion that they might take the minutes of the meeting, often with attached flattery like ‘you have better penmanship’ or ‘it will turn out better’. Tiits adds that a factor keeping more women from ascending to senior leadership is that a senior executive’s days are longer, they have to devote more time to work and shoulder greater responsibility. “As to women’s role in society, the assumption tends to be that women play a larger role in family life and have to be able to reconcile professional and home life.” She herself made it to a senior executive role one step at a time: she went from specialist to mid-level manager and then became an executive.

Kristel Tiits Grant Thornton Baltic

Kristel Tiits, Grant Thornton Baltic's Partner, Head of Legal. Photographer: Egert Kamenik

When will the glass ceiling shatter?

Management coach Merle Viirmaa says that women are well represented in the mid-level manager segment – this reflects her own experience and is also borne out by research. But the percentage of women in senior management is lower. “The more clout the company has, the likelier the trend is to hold true. Only 10% of Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO, for example. The good news is that things have got much better over the last 10 years. I also see major changes in the younger generation’s attitudes and ambitions and I’m certain that at least in the democratic world, the glass ceiling will be smashed in the next 10 years.”

How did the glass ceiling come to be in the first place? Merle Viirmaa says there are many reasons: women’s own behavioural patterns (such as wanting to be liked, perfectionism, not being perceived as a climber, shying away from being too assertive) and factors from the external environment (stereotypes, double standards and preference for masculine models in the management environment). “If I were asked what would be the one thing I would do to improve the situation, I would say: support young women! First of all, the future is in their hands. And second, there’s a lot of research that has shown how the self-confidence of young newly hired woman executives specifically falls dramatically in the first years,” emphasizes Viirmaa.

Co-founder of tech firm Grünfin, Triin Hertmann, says that the glass ceiling is well in evidence in Estonia but compared to the rest of the world, people here are pretty well off. “Sometimes, more traditional Western cultures leave the impression that engagement with women and their mobility toward business leadership positions is important, but actual decision-making processes under the surface speak otherwise. That’s why I like it in Estonia – in this country, a lot comes down to personal performance and sincerity, there is less of a two-faced policy and things are talked about the way they are.” Hertmann notes that Estonia was the first country to have women serving as president and prime minister simultaneously.

Triin Hertmann, CEO and co-founder of Grünfin. Photographer: Jake Farra

Men and women: both needed

Hertmann sums up by saying that an executive position is something a person has to want themselves and be ready to take action to pursue. “Of course, becoming an executive requires certain personality traits and motivation but that goes for both men and women,” says Hertmann. She herself spent most of her career working for fast-growing tech firms, including Skype and Wise, and says that the tech sector comes with opportunities to determine one’s own career path and move toward the person’s fields of interest as well as being a leader of people. Hertmann also cites the economic aspect, backing it up with a reference to research: “To give an example from the world of start-ups, it has been shown that if a company’s management includes women as well as men, the return for investors tends to be about twice better than the average[1], [2],” says Hertmann.

Yet Hertmann, Tiits and Viirmaa all note that they don’t want to leave the impression that women are better than men in leadership roles. What is important that people realize diversity’s advantages. Viirmaa, the executive coach, notes that neither women nor men are actually naturally better suited for a leadership role. Instead it comes down to differences that enrich and complement each other. “Companies and organizations that have a good male-female balance in senior management are more profitable, socially more responsible, have higher employee satisfaction and reference indexes and offer a better customer experience. The goal is diversity. Studies show that certain styles, patterns and models are more characteristic for women, but they are not superior or inferior,” says Viirmaa.

Tiits for her part also says that gender equality is important in management. “Teams that have both men and women in their executive ranks are often longer-lasting and manage innovation better. Involving women in business leadership is vital for all organizations that want to reap benefits from perspectives generated by a more diverse management, and a more supportive style of leadership that women bring to a position,” says Tiits. She mentions that on several occasions she resolved misunderstandings where a male executive didn’t take the nature of a problem very seriously or failed to grasp it but where the situation might have even culminated with a very good specialist leaving the company.

A quota is like putting a bandage on a gaping wound

But what to make of the EU directive that requires companies to increase the share of underrepresented genders in company supervisory boards to 40 per cent and on management boards to 33 per cent by July 2026?

Triin Hertmann is in favour of the quotas. “I believe that multifaceted teams are more successful in nearly everything they do. It’s not a bad thing if we need to get on the case of such companies a little. I’m totally sure that the supervisory boards and management boards who initially turn up their nose and take a scornful view of ‘quota women’ at first will soon see the positive effects on the company’s leadership culture and success. Soon it will be the new normal and no one will remember why it was ever different.”

Tiits says that the directive will ultimately give women greater chance of making it to the helm of major companies and improve the leadership culture at companies. Yet she also draws attention to the risks. “On the one hand, it’s certainly to be welcomed from the standpoint of gender balance, but do people really desire to be in the role of a ‘silent’ partner elected to management only to meet quota requirements and what voting rights does that entail? Plus, fining companies for not meeting the quota sounds like excessive bureaucracy.”

Merle Viirmaa

Viirmaa sees the quota system as a two-edged sword. “Yes, it will make our companies and society better. No, I don’t know any women who want to get promoted only thanks to a quota. I really hope common sense will prevail at companies and they will choose to support women, that will be a win-win for everyone. In countries that do have quotas (including race-based ones) we can see the uneasiness caused by quota-based promotions. A quota is like putting a bandage on a gaping wound.”

Merle Viirmaa, Executive Coach. Photographer: Triin Maasik


Role models are everywhere

When we asked Kristel Tiits, Merle Viirmaa and Triin Hertmann to highlight outstanding female Estonian executives, they did not have to think for long. “Without a doubt our Chancellor of Justice, Ülle Madise – always articulate and known for coming out with very thought-provoking and wise positions,” says Tiits.

Viirmaa highlighted the chairwoman of the management board of Ekspress Group, Mari-Liis Rüütsalu. “A brilliant, smart, broad-minded and big-hearted woman. A leader who is an elegant fusion of rigour and softness. Someone who achieves very good results, engaging people in a way where the people know and sense that she really cares about them and supports them. But I’m also glad that Mari-Liis hasn’t started carrying a cross in terms of where she feels she has to be a model to all women and to represent all females at every meeting,” says Viirmaa.

Hertmann says that she’s especially impressed by female execs who are more visible in the media, who express opinions on salient topics for society and inspire other women by example. “In the tech sector, I see women executives each and every day soldiering through fire and water, while taking a very caring attitude toward their teams. I have a lot of admiration for people like Kaidi Ruusalepp (Funderbeam), Kristel Kruustükk (Testlio) and Kadri Kiisel (LHV Pank), and naturally the other co-founder of my own company Grünfin, Karin Nemec. I’m an angel investor and have invested into 30 start-ups and of my last 10 investments, eight went to female founders. I have a very high appreciation for all of them as well,” says Hertmann.



Sign up to get the latest updates by email

To keep abreast of what is happening in the economy, to receive timely information about changes in the law and the most important development trends in tax, legal and other important areas of business, subscribe to our newsletter.