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The Netherlands is arguably one of the most gender equal countries in the world. It ranks 5th in the EU on the Gender Equality Index and was the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriages. However, we continue to face a major challenge in reaching equality between women and men.

However, we continue to face a major challenge in reaching equality between women and men. In 2020 the pay gap between men and women was recorded as 4% in the government sector and a 7% gap in the business sector, even once corrected for part-time work, sector and seniority of positions held.

Dutch policy of part-time work is often heralded as a driver for equality, providing a framework for both work, family caregiving and free time to enjoy other pursuits. This arguably fuels the Netherlands consistently topping the Global ranking for the happiest children and happiest population in the world. However, part-time working has become engendered and synonymous, largely, with women. In 2019, the OECD reported that 73% of Dutch women worked part-time compared to 28% of men. These rates polarised during the pandemic, with women working on average 9% less than 2019 rate and men slightly more.

The impact of this disparity has a serious economic effect on salary and pension accumulation, as evidenced by The Netherlands having the second largest gender pension gap in the EU, after Cyprus. Further unintended consequences include slower progression into management roles, as highlighted by the recent ‘mynaamisPeter’ campaign. Female CEO’s are few, fewer even than the number of male CEO’s called Peter. Women hold only 26.6% of management positions in Dutch corporates, one of the lowest rates in the OECD and well below the OECD average of 32.5%.  Although recent statutory changes requiring Dutch listed business to have 30% representation of women on the supervisory board starts to address this inequality in business, it doesn’t mean anything if the number of women currently holding or working towards senior roles, are not there en masse.

Balancing choice and seniority 

However, it is not to say that every Dutch woman wants to work full-time; in a 2021 survey by the Dutch government, only seven percent of women in part-time jobs would rather be working full time. Whilst the figure is much higher for younger women and set to increase as millennials and Gen-Z start and grow in their careers, it appears that traditionally, some Dutch women tend to elect for roles that are compatible with part-time working and thus, not achieve the same seniority as male counterparts. In addition, women universally tend to elect for more caregiving activities, which accounts for a large, but not complete, proportion of women working part-time. Whether women choose to work part-time for childrearing, other caregiving or pursue a better work-life balance and hobbies, the majority of women in the Netherlands work part-time. So how to balance this dynamic with an increasing expectation for gender equality within all level of Dutch businesses? And why is gender equality in senior leadership roles the right measure? Should we be proud of our culture of providing opportunities to not make work the focal point of our lives? Generating the happiest children in the world? Or have we inadvertently created unintended bias and reinforced gender roles by a lack of female role models in senior positions throughout our society?

It could be suggested that we need to support two distinct groups of women; those who follow traditional models of career success through appointment to senior positions and those who choose to balance their professional life with other factors, regardless what those factors might be. Of course, it goes without saying, that part-time work doesn’t have to mean part-time for the whole of women’s careers; this could be for a season, a reason or a lifetime.  Ensuring that there are career paths for women who have chosen to work part-time for a period of time and aspire to senior level roles is also a key factor in reaching equality of women in all level of business; careers, like life, are not linear. For more women to appear in more senior positions, part-time work for a period of time must be compatible, for some women, with progression to leadership. Organisations that struggle with promoting those women who aspire to traditional models of career success, could use a quota to increase active awareness and target the bias that exists when there are so few women at senior management positions. But that doesn’t suggest that this is the only measure of success for all women, or even men. Economic inequality aside, the ability to engage with work in a way that suits lifestyle and wider life goals is often considered the cure to our modern existence; and it is an area where the Netherlands leads.

"As a society we need to ensure that our choices are our own to make and not assigned to underlying, archaic and unchallenged gender roles."

Driving change through hybrid working

Besides policies and possible quota, organisations and their managers should also consider how the way we work can support gender equality. So, what role can hybrid working offer in equalising the unequal? Firstly, with a greater proportion of men and women working from home the opportunity to increase the share of unpaid work has at least the chance to be redistributed. Whether it is buying some more milk, taking the children to school, or arranging for the window cleaner to be paid, being present in the home gives better visibility to everyone on the unpaid element of life outside the office. Research shows that Dutch men are not resistant to an equal distribution of work; In a 2019 OECD report on gender inequality and parenting, 83% of Dutch men and women reported wanting to share an equal distribution of care work, although under 40% say that this happens in practice. The opportunity to work from home on a flexible basis could provide much need visibility and value to that unpaid work, which was previously hidden and largely delivered by women, offering a route to make the distribution of home-related work, equal. Further, a reduction of commute time and more flexible working hours may also provide an opportunity for those women who may have otherwise elected for part-time work to work full time, thus naturally increasing the opportunity for the number of women to reach senior management positions within a traditional, linear career model. Conversely, flexible working and working from home may also offer men a more socially accepted route to part-time work or increased participation in childrearing and leisure activities, previously unaccepted within the confines of the traditional male gender role. Notwithstanding, rates of part-time work amongst men in the Netherlands is one of the highest in Europe and over three times the OECD average for men.

"Whilst there is room for improvement, we should also acknowledge where we are right now."

Finally, the increase in flexible working provides both men and women the chance to reevaluate their relationship with work and could drive organisations to provide careers that are not based on traditional hierarchical progression and offer rewarding opportunities for people to develop, learn and live within a more contemporary ecosystem of work-life balance. Hybrid working may not be the solution to gender inequality but could provide a route for both men and women to round-out our relationship with work, whether that is working more or less.


Sophie Schuller
Sophie Schuller

Head of Applied Research, EMEA Consulting (EMEA Grade - Partner) • Rotterdam

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