Americans work more than workers in any other nation in the industrialized world. And American mothers spend more time with their children than ever before. As a result, many are stressed out, exhausted, and at the end of their tether.
It is with envy and admiration that American mothers often look over the Atlantic toward Europe, especially toward welfare-state Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands.* The Dutch have one of the shortest average working weeks in the world (36 hours), and approximately 75 percent of Dutch women work even less than that average. Many of them go part time, especially after they have children. They have the freedom to choose to work fewer hours, which gives them more time to spend with their families or on leisure activities.
On the surface, the Dutch may have it all figured out: 16 weeks of maternity leave, an elaborate network of day cares, and a culture that allows them to be imperfect mothers, thanks to a mentality that encourages moderation in all things. Working part time, something that is seen as a cure for all problems in the U.S., is actually the norm in the Netherlands. But look closer and you will see that the work-life balance paradise is not without its own gender-equality shortcomings.
“In the Netherlands, the division of labor is influenced by the so-called 1.5 breadwinner or provider model. Men tend to work full time and women part time,” explained Esther de Jong, senior policy officer at Atria, an institute committed to gender equality. This is powered by two assumptions the Dutch have about men, women, children, and families. In the Netherlands, 40 percent of men and 30 percent of women believe that mothers are more suitable for raising young children, and 60–70 percent of both men and women believe it is bad for children under 2 to attend day care. “The pressure for women to combine both care and work activities often makes them opt for part-time employment,” said de Jong.
While it is illegal to discriminate against part-time workers in the Netherlands, people who worked less than full time were still extremely vulnerable to downturns, unexpected financial costs, or job loss. These jobs also have less prestige and recognition. Worst of all, the rise of part-time jobs could actively contribute to the rising inequality because women are overrepresented in nonstandard work arrangements in jobs that offer lower hourly wages, for example. Workers who had part-time contracts also felt the flexibility they desired cost them potential career advancement opportunities and better pay.
A recent study showed that women in the Netherlands first started working part time in their 20s, right out of college, often before having children was even an issue. As a result, women were less qualified for top positions later on, even after having children who were grown. Sectors that traditionally employed them, like health care or child care, didn’t always have full-time positions available. Moreover, women were more likely to have flexible contracts than men and were, therefore, easier to be let go. In November 2017, the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant reported that the number of people affected by work-related burnout has risen in recent years and can be explained with the rise of part-time jobs, which offer much less financial security than full-time contracts and are therefore more stressful. Employees with stable positions were also able to take more sick days without worrying about the consequences and could avoid burnout by resting more.
According to the Dutch statistic office CBS, women who had flexible contracts were less likely to be mothers. And, according to the most recent survey by the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, the Netherlands has dropped 16 places when it comes to gender equality due to the low political participation of women and their low economic independence. That has to do with the large share of women in part-time work: Only 59 percent of Dutch women are economically independent.
Moreover, even as Dutch men work less than their counterparts in other countries, women still do the majority of house- and child-related tasks. According to recent studies, mothers spend 2½ times less time on paid labor than fathers. This is especially visible in the discussions about paternity leave. Women get 16 weeks of paid parental leave in the Netherlands. Dutch men? Two days. While this is better than the zero days American dads get, in nearby Sweden, fathers have 90 days.
Of course, there are benefits to part-time work. Part-timers in the Netherlands are free to divide their time between work, child care, and leisure as they see fit. And even though many Dutch women work part time, their participation in the labor market is still high: 74.2 percent of women are employed compared with 84.6 percent of men. Moreover, the Netherlands scores consistently high in terms of gender equality, especially when it comes to the education of women. But one can’t overstate the importance of financial independence for women, and that comes not just from working but working in positions of power. “There is a link between the low share of women in leadership positions and the division of care and work between men and women,” said de Jong.
De Jong’s solution? “An equal division of parental leave is important in breaking the pattern of women working part time and men working full time. It provides fathers with the opportunity to spend more time with their newborn children and enables women to return to employment more easily.” But it’s important for the leave to not be interchangeable, where married parents can choose who should take what proportion of the leave between the two of them. In countries where that is the case, women usually take additional time off instead of the fathers taking their paid leave.
For real gender equality on the labor market, two things need to happen: policies that make it possible for women and men to combine paid work and care and a public discussion on existing stereotypes about the proper division of labor between men and women. “It is important to keep aiming for gender equality on the labor market and to break stereotypes on the division of care and work so that both women and men are free to choose what they would like to do; work, take care of children, or a combination of the two,” said de Jong. In that sense, the discussions about gender equality in the Netherlands aren’t so different from those in the U.S.
*Correction, Jan. 10, 2018: Due to an editing error, this post originally misstated that the Netherlands is in Scandinavia.