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."
When I talk to women who spend half the week doing what they want—playing sports, planting gardens, doing art projects, hanging out with their children, volunteering, and meeting their family friends—I think, yes, that sounds wonderful. I can look around at the busy midweek, midday markets and town squares and picture myself leisurely buying produce or having coffee with friends. In a book released several years ago called Dutch Women Don't Get Depressed—a parody of French Women Don't Get Fat—Dutch psychologist Ellen de Bruin explains that key to a Dutch woman's happiness is her sense of personal freedom and a good work-life balance. But 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 would be: American Women Don't Get Satisfaction?
Women in the United States have become defined by the compromises we make. More than 75 percent of American women who are employed work full-time jobs. * As our responsibilities increase at work, they do not shrink at home. We give up time with our families for our careers, and after work we give up other interests for time spent with our children and spouses—because there are only so many hours in a day. Because of part-time work, Dutch women are able to develop themselves and their relationships in ways many of us simply don't have the time for.
How many times have you heard a woman brag about all that she juggles or seen her flush with self-importance when describing a hectic day? How many magazine sidebars have we all read telling us how to "simplify," "streamline," and "manage" our time, implying that this everywoman time-shortage problem is something we should embrace? We make fun of the '80s notion of the Superwoman, who was supposed to do it all. And yet she is still our ideal.
The problem for American women isn't just the amount of time we spend working; it is the notion that we need to be perfect at everything we do. TV shows, advertisements, and articles from women's magazines have formed this composite of a perfect woman who is successful at work, nurturing at home, always optimistic, and impeccably dressed. She dominates the boardroom and rushes in her pencil skirt to collect her well-groomed toddler. The ideal American woman doesn't just putter around in the kitchen or dabble in knitting. She opens a cake shop and knits scarves for fashion shows. She appears on Oprah. She follows her dreams.
Even though I'm almost positive that even if I am able to become this mythical woman I won't be happy, part of me still wants to be her. It's hard to shake the way I was raised. Yet the more time I spend in the Netherlands, the more I feel the pressure to be some sort of Superwoman recede. Which makes me think maybe we'd be better-off if we could relax and go Dutch.
Correction, Nov. 15, 2010: This article originally stated that 75 percent of all American women work full-time jobs; rather, 75 percent of American women who are employed work full-time. Return to the corrected sentence.