Why do so many people in the Netherlands work part-time? Because they can

The World
The World

In the Netherlands, more people work part-time — by choice — than in almost any other country. Especially women. In fact, 75 percent of Dutch working women work part-time.

It’s easy to see why mothers — actually, any workers — might choose part-time hours. Consider Maggie Wissink Ook Geerdink, who is a senior policy advisor for the Dutch government. She has a big job in the sense of how fulfilling and important it is. But it’s not big in terms of time: Wissink Ook Geerdink works only three days a week. That leaves her two days to volunteer at her children’s school, visit museums and have lunch dates with friends.

The appeal of having a fulfilling career and time for fun is part of the reason the Netherlands has the highest rate of part-time work in the developed world. Another explanation for the popularity of part-time work there is a law passed in 2000 that allows most employees to reduce their hours without repercussion.

The policy was intended to entice women with kids into the work force. And it has done that. As Lieselotte Blommaert, a researcher at Utrecht University explains, “Before the part-time provisions were around, women just stopped working when they got married.”

Now, some 70 percent of Dutch women are in the workforce. But, as Blommaert’s and others’ research has shown, Dutch women’s professional successes have been limited by the fact that most working women work part-time.

“Part-time workers are giving up more than just salary. If you work part-time, you get less promotion, the chance you get manager or an executive position is less and also the chance to get additional education or training,” explains Saskia de Hoog, with the advocacy group Women, Inc.  As a result, says de Hoog, a lot of women who choose part-time now find themselves on the Dutch “mommy track.”

That’s what happened to Lucienne Bresser, who works for an international bank in Amsterdam. After her son was born, she dropped down to three days a week at the bank. Then, she says, she was pushed off the fast track for promotions and watched as colleagues who worked full-time passed her by.

Bresser survived the professional setback. Though she says she didn’t advance as quickly as she would have if she’d worked full-time, she now manages 50 employees in the Netherlands and abroad, and loves her job. And she thinks working part-time has been good for her kids. But many women in the Netherlands haven’t been as lucky. Half of all Dutch working women earn less than $1200 a month. And that makes them financially dependent, according to the government — and financially vulnerable.

“A lot of mothers get in poverty after a divorce because they were not working, or not working a lot before the divorce,” explains de Hoog. So she has helped Women Inc. target this gender wage gap. The groups holds workshops for women on financial independence. And it launched a nationwide campaign about the fact that the average Dutch man, over his lifetime, earns 300,000 euros more than a Dutch woman. 

But just raising awareness of the gap probably won’t close it. Earning more requires working more — and in Holland, many women still resist doing that. In fact, all the women interviewed for this story work part-time themselves — including de Hoog and others whose job is warning other women about the consequences of part-time work.

It seems many Dutch women know the financial risks, but see them as worth taking. Deanna Prost, a mother of two who works four days a week at an Amsterdam museum, perhaps explained it best.

“I’m really pleased that I live here and it’s possible and normal and accepted to work three or four days,” says Prost. “I’d rather enjoy [my kids] than more euros.”

If you had the chance, would you go part time, even if it cost you pay and promotions? Tell us in the comments, below.

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