Gender Gaps in Part-time / Full-time Work: a problem we can only resolve together

Man legt iets uit met handen, voor laptop, schrift en telefoon

What do a business line manager in a high-tech company, a policy advisor in a childcare organisation, and a professor of social and economic history have in common? They all share a mutual interest in resolving the unequal division of paid work hours between men and women on the Dutch labour market. And therefore, they were all present at the UU Hub Gender and Diversity Stakeholder Meeting last October to talk and learn about Gender Gaps in Part-time / Full-time Work in the Netherlands.

Unsurprisingly, the highly traditional model of the male breadwinner and the female caregiver is dominant in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is frontrunner in Europe when it comes to women working part-time. More women work part-time in the Netherlands than anywhere else in Europe: on average, women's paid work hours are 27 a week while men's paid work hours are 37 a week. Unsurprisingly, the highly traditional model of the male breadwinner and the female caregiver is dominant in the Netherlands. Men tend to work full-time, develop a career and are economically independent, and women are more likely to be caregivers: they bring in some extra financial means with a part-time job that does not provide economic independence, and take on the lion share of unpaid labour.

Building bridges

For this Stakeholder Meeting, the Gender & Diversity Hub brought together experts from within academia and practice to exchange experience and expertise and to set up new networks and research collaborations, building bridges between academics and practitioners to jointly answer societies' key questions on the Dutch Research Agenda. The afternoon took off with presentations by Wieteke Graven (Het Potentieel Pakken), Prof. Elise van Neederveen Meerkerk (Economic and Social History, UU), Dr Mara Yerkes (Interdisciplinary Social Science, UU) and Prof  Janneke Plantenga (Economics, UU). The presentations were followed by an interactive panel discussion with Jens van Tricht (Emancipator), Wendy van den Boogaard (PGGM / Het Potentieel Pakken), Prof. Paul Boselie (Governance, UU) and Leonie Koops (Witteveen+Bos). This multidisciplinary panel engaged with statements covering themes about causes, consequences and potential solutions to the gender gap in part-time/full-time work for individuals, organisations, government and society at large.

Moeder in het gezin en niet in de fabriek! Reclame voor de moeder als huisvrouw.
Flyer (via Europeana, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

The male breadwinner

Where does the idea of the male breadwinner come from? Within Dutch culture it is implied that a good mother is a mother who does not work full-time; she does not ‘outsource’ her kids. We tend to think this conviction is deeply rooted in Dutch culture, but historian Prof. Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk contends otherwise and shows that the concept is relatively new. Many historians argue that the concept of the male breadwinner was born in the 17th century. However, research by amongst others Van Nederveen Meerkerk demonstrates that over the centuries, women formed a substantial part of the work force, yet this remained mostly invisible. After the Second World War, the image of the male breadwinner was reinforced more, and slogans like ‘Moeder in het gezin en niet in de fabriek!’ (Mothers in the family, not in the factory!) appear in the public spere. This changed during the second feminist wave, but nowadays the man is still considered to be the main breadwinner. Because the idea of the male breadwinner is relatively young, Van Nederveen Meerkerk sees potential for change in the present and future. 

Part-time trap

Professor of Economics of Public Welfare Janneke Plantenga states that the notion of part-time work in the Netherlands gained real momentum in the early nineties. The economic recession resulted in more part-time work, which was embraced as a solution. She points out that part-time work is not the problem to tackle. Inequality between men and women is, and particularly the gender gap in part-time work that translates into women's lower paid working hours, monthly income, economic independence, and so on. Plantenga states that closing the gender gap in the world of paid labour implies a different organisation of unpaid care activities. Therefore, we find ourselves stuck in a part-time trap.

Equal access to resources does not guarantee equal outcomes

In her research, sociologist Mara Yerkes applies the capabilities approach to the gender gap in part-time work to explain how men's and women's equal access to various resources (e.g., social policies, education, labour markets) does not guarantee equal outcomes and opportunities. For example, even when governmental policies arrange for all people to have similar access to social resources such as childcare, contextual and relational factors shape our realities and thus men's and women's unequal ability to translate these means into real opportunities. Social norms about 'good motherhood' constrain particularly women to use childcare only for 3 days maximum and 'good fathers' are supposed to 'bring home the bacon' instead of taking parental leave. The capabilities approach demonstrates that equal resources does not necessarily mean that people are capable of seizing equal opportunities. The government aims to arrange childcare in a system that makes it available to everyone. But what if you are self-employed and your income fluctuates? Or what if you do not feel you are entitled to it?

Potentieel Pakken

The fact that the labour landscape of the Netherlands is defined by part-time work, is mostly visible in the Dutch healthcare and education sectors. Wieteke Graven, founder and director of Het Potentieel Pakken, points out that over 50% of employees work less than 25 hours week in healthcare. At the same time, we see major labour shortages in the sector and a large number of Dutch women in the healthcare field who are economically dependent on their partner. Wieteke shows that the data from their surveys demonstrate that there is potential to increase contract size of women working in healthcare. Almost half of the professionals (48%) indicated to be willing to work more, but that there are specific constraints in the perceived possibility to make this work, related to scheduling, lack of autonomy in flexible work hours, and gendered convictions about how many hours women should work. Action-based research in living labs facilitated by Het Potentieel Pakken aims to seek for opportunities to increase the contract size of parttime workers in the sector, to overcome current shortages and increase (women's) economic independence. She shared the unique, innovative set-up of Het Potentieel Pakken, in which the foundation does not just work for the field but with the field, not just with the board of an organisation but also with the people ‘aan het bed’.

We tend to focus too much on the individual choices that women and men supposedly have in their paid work hours and caregiving tasks.

Joint research collaboration to Close Gender Gaps in Part-time / Full-time Work

Prof. Belle Derks is currently heading a large interdisciplinary research consortium to - together with societal stakeholders - close existing gender gaps on the Dutch labour market. Her message is that to date, we tend to focus too much on the individual choices that women and men supposedly have in their paid work hours and caregiving tasks. Her suggestion is to shift this focus and to approach the gender gap from a contextualized perspective that takes into account the broader complexity of national histories, regulations and policies, capabilities, and normative constraints as a force field that steer men's and women's gendered career choices. The Hub Gender and Diversity takes such an interdisciplinary perspective. Researchers from different disciplines, for example sociology, psychology, law, economics and gender studies, work together to tackle the question on how we can close the gender gap in part-time / full-time work. But they do not work within the walls of the universities alone, but in co-creation with stakeholders. This Stakeholder Meeting is proof of that.

Further reading

Belle Derks in “Waarom werken vrouwen niet?” (in Dutch)

Submission Dutch Research Agenda | NWO