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The Glass Ceiling in the Netherlands
Part I – The Dutch Paradox
By Mary van der Boon
(this article first appeared in the XPat Journal)

Cast in Cement
Let us begin by correcting a misnomer – the ceiling for women in academic, public and corporate Holland is not made of glass, but rather of concrete. No one is even pretending that it is transparent, not in material, and not in purpose. It is made of construction-grade cement, and there are size 48 boots planted firmly top of it. This couldn’t have been illustrated more clearly than at a recent dinner hosted in Amsterdam by a large international Chamber of Commerce. Of the 250 (overwhelmingly Dutch) guests present, fewer than 30 were women. Certainly as one of the few women executives present I felt distinctly uncomfortable (and also not unlike someone caught in a time warp, beamed back to North America in the early ‘80s. This impression was heightened by the elderly gentleman on my left, who declared emphatically, and pointedly, that a woman’s place was in the home).

Statistical Improvement
Examine the statistics: in 1970, women held 1% of all Board of Management positions in the Netherlands. In 1999, this was 3%. Of course, this represents a three-fold increase, but women are likely finding little solace in the statistical improvement. Participation of women in the workforce is a low 51%, with only a third of these women in full-time employment.

Why are there fewer women professors in the Netherlands than in Benin (in all higher learning institutions in the Netherlands, fewer than 5% of professors are women, ranking the Netherlands lowest in the world)? Why are the majority of women in the workforce in lower-prestige, lower-paid, often part-time employment, when compared with their male counterparts? Why does the Netherlands lag so far behind other western countries in female representation in senior government and management positions?

Few opportunities and little encouragement
Dr. James McAllister, philosopher of science and a professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Universiteit Leiden for the past ten years, says that like most foreigners with a limited acquaintance with the Netherlands, he assumed before he moved here that Dutch society was women-friendly. His own experience has been very different, and he finds there is scant attention paid to the shockingly limited participation of women in science, research and academic life in the Netherlands. "Women receive too little opportunity here. I think that one has to recognize that the obstacles placed in the path of women in the Netherlands are very great, and sufficient to derail many careers in science and management. I would cite the tax system that prevailed until the late 1990s and the unavailability of child care as examples. Thus, it is not that women are unwilling: rather, women's creativity and enthusiasm are sapped by the social obstacles".

Dr. Eduard J. Bomhoff, director of the Nijenrode Forum for Economic Research (NYFER), confirmed this view in a recent evaluation he made of the Kok administration to a large gathering of international executives. Dr. Bomhoff cited the government’s failure to encourage parents in the Netherlands to enter the work force. Under present economic conditions, it is impossible for both parents in low-income families to work if they have more than one child. Child care costs remain prohibitively expensive, requiring one of them to drop out of the labour force in order to stay home (in the overwhelming majority of cases, the mother, which must please my misogynist dinner companion).

Blame the Victim
This is a very different view than that held by the Dutch government. In a policy document issued by the Social and Economic Council (SER) on Equal Rights (Meerjarennota Emanciepatiebeleid) last September, the Council offers the following advice to the Cabinet on the glass ceiling in the Netherlands:
  • an optimistic vision assumes that improvements will occur by themselves, now that many more women are in higher academic study and are participating more fully in the labour market
  • a pessimistic vision assumes little change will occur since the glass ceiling is for the most part formed as a result of the choices made by women themselves, by placing more value on other issues than on their careers.

Thus, the official view of the government is that, in a best-case scenario, "it will solve itself" and in a worst-case scenario, "it can’t be solved because it’s the women’s fault". This report has been heavily criticised by women’s groups in the Netherlands, and these groups have sent a "shadow report" to the United Nations outlining the report’s many inconsistencies.

An International Perspective
Can the situation for women be so very different here than elsewhere in the world? Contrast the above with the International Labour Organization (ILO) description of obstacles to women’s career development:
Cultural biases, gender stereotypes and attitudes against women coupled with their not being viewed as primary income-earners are major obstacles for women's advancement. Consequently, when a woman chooses not to accept a high-level post, it is often assumed that all women would choose the same. In addition, higher performance standards are often expected of women. Furthermore, the absence of clear job descriptions for higher echelon jobs and the lack of formal systems for recruitment, in some instances, also tend to create obstacles. Moreover, the existence of informal male networks, sometimes referred to as "old boys' networks", also tends to exclude women from top jobs (1).

Not the women’s fault, thus. An Australian survey concluded the following:
"In general, women's accomplishments are attributed to luck and external factors, including affirmative action, whereas men's are attributed to skill and ability. The latter have higher worth in the labour market. In addition, theories of statistical discrimination hold that employers expect lower productivity returns for professional women than for equally-qualified men due to probability estimates of turnover, work commitment, and skills that encompass the population at large. This thinking can lead to job assignments for women that limit their skill and knowledge gains"(2).

A Unique Cultural Condition
Dr. Eva Latham, President, Human Rights Teaching International in The Hague, feels the problem in the Netherlands has deep, and unique, cultural roots:
"It is not only that men do nothing to promote equality in policy measures, but what I observe is also that women who have the power to push for those policies, do not do so. Mostly these are women who themselves got through the glass ceiling by the help of their relationship with men on an individual basis, be it in politics or otherwise. So what you see in the Netherlands, at least when you see women who have broken through the glass ceiling, is that other mechanisms than "gender equality policies" were the reason. It will take some generations for them to see that they have equal rights and should not see their rights as "favours". Those women who demand their rights, have a difficult road to walk. Although policy makers know exactly what the situation is, because they are part of it, they keep on doing more and more research, and never come up with effective policies. No one is really going to challenge the situation as they do in the UK or the US, because that means suicide for one’s own career in the polder model (consensus society).

Regarding "dat lost zich vanzelf op" (the situation will solve itself): this remark is made to buy time. Of course it will solve itself, because of demographic reasons. Eventually the labour shortage will mean that even women will have to be included, but this will take a very long time. So everyone can continue to feel comfortable with their current positions and not feel threatened by "gender equality"."

The solution may take a very long time indeed. State Secretary for Social Affairs and Employment Annelies Verstand recently called for the percentage of women holding higher positions in government and corporate organisations be doubled from the present ten to 20% by the year 2004. Many would argue that attaining this goal is unlikely at best, and the goal itself falls far short of the equality mark while also doing nothing to address the fact that the wage gap between men and women in the Netherlands is one of the largest in Europe, with women receiving almost 25% less than men on average.

Tolerance is just another way of saying indifference
So why is such a famously tolerant country like the Netherlands so slow in trying to rectify the situation for its women? According to Dr. McAllister, the well-known Dutch attribute of tolerance merits more critical scrutiny.
"Many foreigners (myself included, on occasion) cite tolerance as one of the praiseworthy features of Dutch society. Indeed, in some areas of social policy and social interaction, it is very valuable. But tolerance is a double-edged sword. It also expresses itself as a reluctance to kick up a fuss, to "zeuren". Making a big fuss is regarded as very un-Dutch. The consensus system in government is, of course, a fine creation, but some groups may suffer if the consensus judges that their position in society calls for no improvement. A non-judgemental attitude, such as that of tolerance, must be applied selectively in a society, lest it develop into an attitude of non-caring and unconcerned indifference. The profoundly conservative implications of such an attitude should be borne in mind. I think that the position of women in society and in the workplace has suffered partly through the "excesses" of the Dutch attitude of tolerance."

Affirmative Action – not just political correctness
When asked about the possibilities for success of affirmative action programmes in the Netherlands, Dr. McAllister cited one obstacle as being the Dutch aversion to American-style political correctness. "While I accept that any such policy must be applied reasonably, non-dogmatically, and sensitively, I am a supporter of positive discrimination or affirmative action. The most important element of such a policy, in my view, is that an employer should take into account past obstacles and hindrances with which job applicants have had to contend in their past career and personal development, and that an assessment of these personal circumstances should be fed into the evaluation for their suitability for the job. This policy has the effect that, if a group in society is systematically disfavoured in the world of work, then a member of such a group should receive a measure of preferential treatment in job applications.

This is not political correctness: there are sound rational and pragmatic justifications of this policy. Women qualify for this treatment at present in the Netherlands, in my view, because of the discrimination that they have to overcome in their careers and the extra burden of child rearing that they take on."


(1) Conclusions on breaking through the glass ceiling: Women in management, International Labour Organisation, December, 1997, http://www.ilo.org
(2) Determinants of managerial career success: evidence and explanation of male/female differences, Catherine Kirchmeyer
Human Relations, Issue: Nov-Dec, 1998, Elsevier Science.