The evolutional path to equality

by Eva Hijmans, Utrecht University of Applied Sciences


According to the reform program 2014 of the Ministry of Economic affairs in The Netherlands: “labour market  participation of women in the Netherlands is among the highest in Europe (71.9% as compared to 62.3% in the EU-28). At the same time, the majority of Dutch women work part-time, and only 52% of them are economically independent (as compared to 74% of the men).[1] Highly educated women work more often (85%), than women with a lower level of education (around 50%). Results of several studies indicate that women are largely content with their working hours. At the same time the Dutch government is seeking ways to get women to work more hours. To no avail it seems.

What is the difficulty? Isn’t economic independence attractive? What is keeping so many woman at home?

Some facts:

First generation migrant women of a non-western background work less than Dutch women (less than 50% of them works). Their daughters tend immediately catch up and work as often as their Dutch origin counterparts. Interestingly, they usually work more hours than their native sisters, over 40% of them works 35 hours or more, while just over 20% of women from Dutch backgrounds work similar hours.[2]

Single mothers (nine out of ten of the single parents are female) have a much greater risk of prolonged poverty, more so than single fathers (28% vs 15%). Slightly fewer single mothers are economically independent than mothers with a partner, especially when they have small children. This is of course a group that is extremely vulnerable to poverty.

When the children are in secondary school, these women work just as often as the women with partners, but on average they work more hours.[3]

Some women want to work more hours, others less. This is pretty well balanced at all times. But then: if someone wants to work more hours, are these available?

Some history:

Our Dutch cultural values and norms of old may have a deep impact on our choices. The Netherlands is a protestant and conservative country where even in the mid- fifties of the last century, married women were not allowed to be civil servants. When a woman civil servant got married, she had to quit her job! And only in 1956 did legislation change, so a married woman did not need her husbands’ signature to sign an employment contract. Also taxes on the second/ smaller income were severe. We cannot know how much of this old culture still influences our choices when it comes to the amount of hours we “want” to work and the amount of hours we think we “should” be with our children. Even in 1979, when European legislation forced the Netherlands into a legislation of equal rights for men and women to participate in the labour market, the Dutch government revolted against this.

Luckily, much has changed for the better in terms of non-discrimination. In the past ten years many policy changes in the Netherlands have tried to influence labour market participation of working parents/ women.  Amongst others through childcare policies, but recently also through tax legislation (offering tax reductions for the partner earning the least).

For example: the take-up in childcare grew considerably between 2005 and 2009 due to stimulation by the government, as did the government expenditure costs. So costs were cut, and together with the economic crisis of those years, the uptake of daycare decreased dramatically, leaving mothers and fathers with a lower income to find alternative sources of childcare. The good news is that research cannot confirm negative effects on labour market participation of Dutch women.

Dutch legislation makes it easy to work part-time and part-timers are well protected under the law. But however “modern” this looks, it might be just that – the well-established opportunity to work part-time- which keeps women in a perpetual double bind.  Working part-time never did anybody’s career any good. Men usually (75%) prefer not to, as it might damage their career development.

Recent research[4] teaches that part-time working women not only work a double shift (keeping their focus on the combination of work and home/ childcare at all times), but a triple one. The double shift isn’t the problem by the way, the amount of women’s and men’s working hours (job and household/ childcare) add up to about the same. The third shift seems to be more of a problem: when free and spending time to themselves, they usually aren’t doing only that.  Women’s’ leisure time is more fragmented, they spend more of their time multitasking (folding the wash while watching TV for instance), and in the same room as their children. They also feel responsible for the wellbeing of friends and relatives. Women feel more pressured and compensate this by working less.  Women without children feel relatively more pressured than mothers, and are inclined to cut working hours.

Where this blog is leading to? To be honest: nowhere. It is -hopefully- a demonstration of what a tangle we are in, a potpourri of factors influencing individual decision-making. The result of government interventions is inconclusive, there are pressured women in a country which, from the outside, looks like it has the most relaxed Mums[5] in the world, there seems to be contentment with part-time jobs and part-time childcare and apparently also with economic dependency. And what looks like individual freedom maybe just that, or maybe it is not.

The fact is that we do not know the exact problem or its solutions. We do not know what will lead to more women being economically independent in The Netherlands. This makes the choice of what exactly to invest quite complicated. And of course we haven’t talked about MEN……yet.

[1] National Reform Programme 2014 The Netherlands (Ministry of Economic Affairs, 2015, p 29-30)

[2] CBS: Central Bureau for Statistics

[3] CBS

[4] SCP: Social Cultural Planning Agency, Wil Portegrijs et al. Lekker vrij!? Vrije tijd, tijdsdruk en de relatie met de arbeidsduur van vrouwen (Nice and free? Leisure time, time pressure and the relation to women’s working hours)  March 8th 2016

[5] Washington Post Nov 5th 2015: What we can learn from the Dutch