Women in the Netherlands work less, have lesser titles and a big gender pay gap, and they love it.
I've been in the Netherlands for nearly three months now, and I've come to one overwhelming conclusion: Dutch women are not like me. I worry about my career incessantly. I take daily stock of its trajectory and make vicious mental critiques of my endeavors. And I know—based on weekly phone conversations with friends in the United States—that my masochistic drive for success is widely shared among my female friends. Meanwhile, the Dutch women around me take a lackadaisical approach to their careers. They work half days, meet their friends for coffee at 2 p.m., and pity their male colleagues who are stuck in the office all day.
Though the Netherlands is consistently ranked in the top five countries for women, less than 10 percent of women here are employed full-time. And they like it this way. Incentives to nudge women into full-time work have consistently failed. Less than 4 percent of women wish they had more working hours or increased responsibility in the workplace, and most refuse extended hours even when the opportunity for advancement arises. Some women cite the high cost of child care as a major factor in their shorter hours, but 62 percent of women working part time in the Netherlands don't have young children in the house, and mothers rarely increase their working hours even when their children leave home.
It's hard not to wonder: Have we gotten it all wrong? In the United States, the race for equality has gone mostly in one direction. Women want to shatter the glass ceiling, reach the top spots in the hierarchy, and earn the same respect and salaries as men do. But perhaps this situation is setting us up for a world in which none of us is having any fun. After all, studies of female happiness in the U.S. find that even as our options have increased and we have become financially more independent than in any previous time in our history, American women as a whole are not getting any happier. If anything, the studies show that we are emotionally less well-off than we were before. Wasn't the whole point of the fight for equality in the workplace to improve our wellbeing?
Dutch women could be considered extremely progressive when compared with most other women in the world—they have enviable reproductive rights and rates of political participation. But they are often responsible for only a small portion of the family income—25 percent of Dutch women do not even make enough money to be considered financially independent. The gap in pay between genders is among the highest in Europe, but because women are working only part time, this is not fodder for gender wars. Instead, women are more concerned with protecting their right to part-time work. In 2000, a law was passed mandating that women have the right to cut back hours at their jobs without repercussions from employers.
"We look at the world of management—and it is a man's world—and we think, oh I could do that if I wanted," says Maaike van Lunberg, an editor at De Stentor newspaper. "But I'd rather enjoy my life." Jacob Vossestein's book Dealing With the Dutch echoes that sentiment. He argues that people in the Netherlands view the hierarchical work environment with skepticism and do not generally envy those who climb its ranks.
Dutch women's refusal to seek longer hours has long bewildered economists. In the spring, the United Nations, suspicious that there was something keeping women from full-time jobs, launched an inquiry to see whether the Netherlands was in compliance with the women's rights treaty. A comprehensive 2009 study by Alison L. Booth & Jan C. Van Ours looked at the amount of time women in the Netherlands spend at work compared with women in other European countries. The authors assumed that part-time work was less desirable but ultimately confirmed that Dutch women don't want to spend more time at work. The NIS News Bulletin interpreted the results of the study as: "Attempts to get more women working full-time are doomed to failure because nobody has a desire for this. Both the women themselves and their partners and employers are satisfied with the Dutch part-time culture for women."
Jessica Olien is a writer and illustrator living in Portland, Ore. You can follow her on Twitter at @jessicaolien.