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April 11, 2013Today’s Take 5 tackles the strange dichotomy of the Netherlands—a country with generous leave arrangements, good flexible working opportunities, and adequate childcare provisions, yet a relatively low percentage of women in the workforce.

Let’s be clear: I don’t see working full-time as the panacea for the ills of the world and for women’s advancement, but as a Brit who has lived in the Netherlands for the last 15 years, I do often find myself at odds with some of my contemporaries in our attitudes towards the workplace. A quick look at the facts will explain what I mean:

  1. As many as 77 percent of employed women work part-time in the Netherlands, the highest proportion in the EU. Dutch women work on average 26 hours a week, but their earnings are 20 percent less than men’s, and 48 percent are considered financially dependent, earning less than 70 percent of the gross minimum wage, or €997 a month—the equivalent of $1,300. 

  1. For Dutch men, too, working part-time is becoming almost commonplace, with a quarter of the male workforce engaged in part-time work. These shorter workdays have even got their own name: a “Daddy Day.”  For many Dutch workers, this appears to be a lifestyle choice, with both men and women who work part-time—a whopping 96 percent of them—telling pollsters that they do not want to work more. 

  1. The former Dutch government, however, felt that the part-time culture of women in the Netherlands was such a cause for concern that in 2007 it set up a task force to investigate how to increase the participation rate of women in the labour market. It saw this as a possible way to increase economic growth and meet the costs of an ageing society.

  1. The government’s efforts haven’t had much impact to date. But it would be remiss of me to not mention that people in the Netherlands express a high degree of satisfaction with their family lives. Indeed, Dutch children were even rated by UNICEF as the most content in the world, although I’m not surprised to hear this as they have an hour and half’s lunch break every day when they return come to a freshly prepared meal, and they have half-days on Wednesdays.  That’s enough to scupper any parent’s working week.

  1. The Netherlands does appear to be ploughing its own furrow in the workplace, and this is to be applauded, but I am concerned by the continuing pay gap and the lack of women in senior positions here. Indeed, the proportion of women in senior management and board positions stands at only 10 percent in the largest 100 companies, which suggests that the Netherlands is perhaps not as liberal as it might think in ensuring that there are no barriers to women’s advancement at work. When women achieve equal parity in the boardrooms, then we can conclude that part-time could indeed provide an alternative pathway to the top.