Backwards or Über-Progressive? Dutch Women Are Working Part-Time and Doing Just Dandy

by Erina Davidson

More than 75% of American women who are employed work full-time jobs. In the Netherlands, nearly 60% of working women are employed part-time. While it may not be possible to pinpoint all of the reasons for this discrepancy, these are two different statistics, denoting clearly different job cultures. In the United States, most young women are raised to be career-oriented and taught to do whatever it takes to climb the ranks in the workforce. Part-time Dutch women, while earning significantly less than financially independent full-time employees, are members of one of the happiest nations in the world. And it’s been this way for years.

In Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed (written in the style of Mireille Guiliano’s bestseller French Women Don’t Get Fat), Dutch psychologist Ellen de Bruin notes that Dutch women rank consistently low compared with other Western women in terms of representation in top positions in business and government. Despite this, the Netherlands ranked highest of all OECD countries in terms of overall well-being and happiness in 2009.

However, some view this trend as an alarming signal that women are no longer seeking equality in the workplace. Writer and economist Heleen Mees argues that the stereotypical Dutch woman has become complacent. “Even at the University of Amsterdam—the most progressive university we have—I had a 22-year-old student say, ‘Why is it your business if my wife wants to bake cookies?’ and the female students agreed with him! I was like, what’s happening here?” Mees runs an organization called Women on Top that strives to push more Dutch women into ambitious career paths. Boasting the slogan, “Out with the part-time feminism!”, the organization points to part-time work as a major factor in a lingering gender-pay gap, among the widest in Europe.

“I think highly educated women have a moral obligation to take top positions, to set an example by their choices,” says Mees. “When women just stay at home or work part-time, they don’t reach the top, and they set bad examples for their daughters and daughters’ daughters.”

In the U.S., freedom for women often entails financial independence and gender equality in the workforce. It’s a different story in the Netherlands. Like many Dutch women, Marie-Louise van Haeren views herself as liberated. She lives just outside of Rotterdam and rides her bicycle or the train to work three days a week at a police academy, where she counsels students. She has worked part-time her entire career, as have almost all of her friends—married or unmarried, kids or no kids—save one or two who logged more hours out of financial necessity. In Holland, women like Van Haeren boldly proclaim no further need for the movement. “Feminism wasn’t necessary anymore by the time I grew up,” she says. “In my eyes, it was a thing of the past.”

She goes on to say, “Maybe this will turn out to be the fourth wave of feminism. Women protect the possibility that one day we’ll wake up to realize that life is not all about acquiring more material wealth, power, status. Many Dutch women that I know want to stay sane, happy, relaxed.”

It’s worth noting that the Netherlands is among the richest countries in the world, with per-capita GDP higher than the U.S. They also have a more equitable distribution of income and higher-quality public services, so the median Dutch household is in fact more financially secure than the median household of most other countries in the world. It’s also important to know that the women only account for a small portion of family income. 25% of Dutch women do not make enough money to be considered financially independent. When asked whether they’d like to increase their hours, just 4% of Dutch women said yes, compared to 25% of French women. Based on findings, researchers concluded that the sole reason for this part-time trend is that Dutch women simply prefer – and choose –  to live this way. (However, in the same research it is unclear what percentage of employed Dutch women surveyed were single.)

In Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed, de Bruine also explains that the key factor to a Dutch woman’s happiness is her sense of personal freedom. In this case, the freedom is achieved through spending more time on self rather than on a career. Besides allowing women to balance work with social and family life, part-time jobs are much more institutionalized in the Netherlands. Whereas most countries – including the U.S. – find part-time jobs to be limiting in terms of career choice, relatively high-skilled work can be done part-time in the Netherlands.There are part-time surgeons, part-time managers and part-time engineers. From Microsoft to the Dutch Economics Ministry, offices have moved into “flex-buildings,” where the number of work spaces are far fewer than the staff – men and women – who come and go on schedules tailored around their needs.

The number one incentive for this part-time lifestyle is the increase in family time. As expected, part-time work is highest among women with dependent children. However, Dutch women without dependent children also work part-time. Usually women do not increase their working hours when their children become older. And young women without children often choose not to work full-time after leaving school. These are statistics unique to the Netherlands’ female labor force.

“From our conservative Dutch philosophy about motherhood comes this urgent wish to spend more time with the family,” said Karien van Gennip, a former trade minister who runs private banking and investment at ING. She was criticized by the Dutch media in 2004 for being the first pregnant cabinet member in the office.

“For a long time our part-time culture looked backwards,” she said. “Now that is changing because it has taken us closer to what everybody is looking for: work-life balance.”

From an American standpoint, this sounds rather improbable. The fact of the matter is, single women surviving on part-time pay in most of the U.S. is unheard of. Can this kind of trend ever occur in the United States? Slate’s Jessica Olien summed up the possible American response to this Dutch lifestyle:

“…it’s hard to transplant that image to the United States, where our self-esteem is so closely tied to our work. I wonder what the equivalent title [of Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed] would be: American Women Don’t Get Satisfaction?”

Sarah Sands, of the U.K.’s Independent, writes, “Perhaps [Dutch women] are happy because they don’t feel guilty for falling short of perfection. We are torn to shreds between the American and the Mediterranean models of womanhood. On one hand, we are boardroom feminists expecting equality of expectation and outcome. On the other, we are matriarchs, wanting to run model kitchens and walk through meadows with bands of children.”

Is this pattern of behavior in the Netherlands a sign of backtracking in the fight for labor and gender equality? While women like Heleen Mees may think so, the Netherlands is seen as progressive compared to most other countries in the world in regards to reproductive rights and rates of political participation. The women who work part-time choose to do so because they are given the option, whether that option is supported by a high-income marriage, support from the government, or a well-paid part-time job.

In 1986, Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, came under fire when she told the New York Times, “What we need are real choices. And I don’t want to hear women saying one choice is more feminist than another.” With the female workforce standards in the Netherlands presenting a rather different view than the standards of  American women, is there such a thing as ‘the right direction’ for progress?

What do you think?


*The quotes of Heleen Mees and Mary-Lousie van Haeren are taken from “How Dutch women got to be the happiest in the world” by Claire Ward (Macleans), which this post is based on. The quotes of Karien van Gennip are taken from “Working (Part-Time) in the 21st Century” by Katrin Bennhold (New York Times).

Sources: SlateThinkProgress, New York Times, “Working (Part-Time) in the 21st Century” by Katrin Bennhold (NYT), “Female part-time work in the Netherlands” by Nicole Bosch, Bas van der Klaauw, and Jan van Ours

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