How working for ECWO has given me a different perspective on gender roles

The Netherlands is often seen from the outside as a very progressive country, and that’s true when you look at the bigger picture. However I believe there is room for improvement in some areas, for instance in the affirmation of gender stereotypes.

Having grown up in the Netherlands, I have often been confronted by gender stereotypes and I think that deep-down, this country is more traditional than it would appear on the surface. Obvious gender stereotypes include baby-changing rooms in the ladies’ WC; only two full days as the legal minimum paternity leave; and pictograms in public areas that confirm gender stereotypes – handbags and high heels for shopping areas, for example.

Deep roots for gender roles

Traditional gender roles are deeply rooted in Dutch society. It has more part-time workers than any other country in Europe, and of those part-timers, 8.7 per cent are men and 32.2 per cent are women. But it’s also a fact that women in the Netherlands are more highly educated than men. Nearly 43 per cent of women between the ages of 30 and 40 have a master degree as well as a bachelor degree. Only 38 per cent of men in that age range have both degrees.

This majority of women being part-time workers originates from the household subsidies that encouraged women to stay home with their children, which existed until 1980. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the Dutch state tried to mobilise women into the workforce. But the cultural conviction prevailed that mothers should be home with the family at tea-time. The state then worked with employers to ensure that new part-time jobs would enjoy similar legal status to their full-time equivalents. For this reason part-time jobs are widely accepted and desirable in the Netherlands.

One could say that this cultural inheritance indirectly affects the costs of day care. It’s financially beneficial for a household with children to have at least one parent working part-time (rather than two parents working full-time) because the cost of day care is extremely high. This does not affect mothers who deliberately choose to work part-time or not work at all. However those who do aspire to a full-time career are being held back because of this.

Do we actually have a choice?

What I have learned at ECWO is that women do have a choice. But it’s a basic right that is often unconsciously forgotten, because women are often put into default roles that they have not explicitly chosen. It is challenging for women to filter out all that they have been taught and exposed to in order to make a decision based on their true desires as individuals, one that is true to themselves because it challenges their unconscious biases. They must focus and reflect on what they want to accomplish while taking into account the effects of their experience of being nurtured.

Women can ask themselves ‘Am I really doing what I do at this moment because I really chose this? Is this my nature? Or did I choose this because of what I have been taught?’

And extrapolating this, are Dutch mothers consciously choosing to work part-time, or have they fallen into the role that society expects? One could conclude that the answer is the latter, given the convincing numbers of female part-timers when compared to other parts of Europe.

This is water

Professor Dianne Bevelander, founder of ECWO, often refers to ‘this is water’ – the idea that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Women and men must avoid being stripped of their decision-making powers just because the ‘default’ option sometimes appears to be the only option.

In order to better themselves, people must constantly ask: “Is my next decision really true to me, or is this water?” By doing so, everyone will become more aware of the ‘water’ surrounding us, and challenge gender stereotypes.


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